Buyer Beware: 4 Labels That Don’t Mean What You Think

Last Update: June 16, 2023

Just like food styling wizards and glowing celebrity endorsements, food labels have become effective selling tools for brands.

People care a lot more about what they eat than in the past. Rare is a grocery store aisle where you won’t find a shopper scrutinizing an item’s packaging. So how to market a less-than-healthy product? Make it seem like it is. Here are four common labels food manufacturers slap on boxes and bottles that do just that.

“All Natural”

Three of five Americans check to see whether their food is “natural,” and in 2013, the word persuaded shoppers to buy $43 billion worth of groceries. But what does the label mean?

While most people believe that a food item bearing “natural” or “all natural” on its packaging is free of pesticides, artificial ingredients, and GMOs, the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t defined the term. The agency merely doesn’t object to its use “if the food does not contain added color, artificial, flavors, or synthetic substances.” This makes it far too easy for brands to use the lucrative label.

Dozens of “natural label” lawsuits—including a case in which PepsiCo. paid a $9 million class action settlement for labeling Naked Juice “all natural” despite the genetically modified soy in the drink—have been battling the unregulated use of the term. But as Center for Science in the Public Interest lawyer Stephen Gardner told Mother Jones, the list of lawsuits “only scratches the surfaces of the number of companies that are making these claims.”

“Free Range”

Most people these days can picture the horrific conditions of factory-raised chickens—in filthy coops with very little room to move. No wonder that “free range” poultry have become hot selling items in the frozen aisle. However, shoppers may do a double take if they knew the USDA’s definition of “free range” or “free roaming”: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” This could mean as little as five minutes… in a parking lot. Moreover, the label isn’t regulated at all when it comes to eggs.

“Made With Real Fruit” or “Contains Fruit Juice”

Corn syrup, sugar, and juice concentrate don’t exactly photograph well. But plump and brightly colored fruits do, especially when they’re on food packaging marked with a “made with real fruit” or a “contains fruit juice” label. It doesn’t matter if one piece of strawberry or a splash of juice concentrate makes it in. Plus, studies have shown that juice—which often carries the label—can have just as much sugar as soda.

“0 Grams of Trans Fat”

Think of trans fat, or trans-fatty acids, as one of the worst supervillains of all fats. It doesn’t just increase a person’s bad cholesterol, it also lowers good cholesterol—a pernicious combination that leads to heart disease.

Trans fat naturally occurs in small amounts in some meat and dairy products, but people consume most of it from processed foods that have a long shelf life (we’re talking pastries, potato chips, and deep-fried foods).

Nutrition labels include the amount of trans fats a food item contains. The problem: The FDA allows brands to label products with “0 grams of trans fat” if they contain 0.5 grams trans fats or less. It can quickly add up. The American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fats consumption to less than 1 percent of a person’s diet. That means a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet should contain fewer than 20 calories—or 2 grams—of trans fats.

Photo credit: Nick Castonguay via Flickr

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Kristina Bravo

Kristina is a regular contributor to Thrive Market.

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