How Food Packaging Claims Can Fool You

Food manufacturers use language to magnify the desirability of a product and can lead you to believe it’s something to make you healthier—even though what’s inside that box may not be all that good for you.
Sally Wadyka
September 27, 2017

“No artificial colors.” “Good source of fiber.” “Contains sea salt.” All these package claims and more might make you snatch a product off the supermarket shelf and feel virtuous about doing so.

“Food manufacturers use every possible word they can to magnify the desirability of a product,” says Walter Willett, M.D., professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. And that language can lead you to believe you’ve picked something that’s going to make you healthier—even though what’s inside that box may not be all that good for you.

Companies have to carefully choose their marketing pitches because some terms are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, such as low-sodium (meaning the food has 140 mg or less per serving) or “good source of” (meaning it provides 10 to 19 percent of the daily value for a nutrient).

Little wonder, then, that food marketers strive to come up with healthy-sounding slogans that fall outside FDA regulation. It unfairly falls to shoppers, says Willett, to sleuth out what truly makes a food healthy. “Turn the package around,” he says, “and read the ingredients and nutrition facts label, paying attention to crucial things like sodium, sugar, whole grains, type of fat, and calories.” And watch out for front-of-package tricks like these.

Beware: When You See a Nutrient Claim, Such as 'Good Source of Calcium'
Calling out just one or two nutrients can mislead consumers to assume one product is healthier overall than another. For instance, highlighting the calcium content on plain yogurt is one thing because overall, plain yogurt is a healthy food and calcium is naturally present. But a calcium claim on a cookie? It might make you feel better about eating it, but there’s probably little benefit. For example, Stella D’oro Breakfast Treats carry the claim “good source of calcium,” and the product does supply 10 percent of the daily value for calcium from added calcium carbonate. But with 90 calories, 6 grams of sugars, and zero fiber, the cookie is far from a health food.

Beware: When the Name of the Product Itself Sounds Healthy
The nutrition count of Simply Lay’s Sea Salted potato chips is practically identical to Lay’s Classic potato chips, with just 10 fewer grams of sodium. Quaker Oats Select Starts Protein instant oatmeals have 10 grams of protein per packet (from added whey protein), but also 12 to 13 grams of sugars. Or consider Stoned Wheat Thins: The word “wheat” in this product name may be confusing, leading consumers to believe they’re getting a whole-wheat cracker. But this one is made with white flour plus a smattering of cracked wheat, and consequently has about a third of the fiber of a true whole-wheat cracker.

Beware: When the Package Is Plastered With Healthy Buzzwords
They can catch your attention, but you can’t rely on buzzwords to be a shortcut to finding a healthy food. In some cases, the food may contain so little of the ingredient that it’s irrelevant nutritionally. For example, the dehydrated vegetables in roasted vegetable Ritz crackers, which tout “made with real vegetables” on the package, don’t change the nutritional makeup of the crackers much at all compared with regular Ritz. Refined wheat flour is the first ingredient listed in both, and each serving has 80 calories and no fiber. In fact, the veggie crackers have 150 mg of sodium per serving compared with 105 in the regular version. And candy labeled “made with real honey,” as Brach’s candy corn is, may be making a true claim. But honey is a form of added sugar and, in this case, the candy also has four other types of sugars (sugar, corn syrup, confectioner’s glaze, and dextrose), for a total of 28 grams of sugars per serving. This warning applies when the package alerts you to what’s not there, too. For example, Log Cabin pancake syrup proclaims “no high-fructose corn syrup,” but the top three ingredients are corn syrup, water, and sugars, meaning it’s still full of added sugars.

Beware: When the Words 'Simple,' 'Natural,' or 'Free From' Are Used

So-called clean labels are increasingly popular. “Consumers want simpler formulas, with ingredients that they can easily understand and fewer or no processed ingredients,” says Francine Schoenwetter, director of content at New Hope Network, a research firm. “Label claims such as ‘simple’ and ‘natural’ don’t have to be verified,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, Consumer Reports’ senior policy analyst and food labeling expert. You need to look closely to see whether the manufacturers’ definition of the terms matches yours. Kozy Shack Simply Well chocolate pudding touts that it is made with simple, wholesome ingredients, but most people probably wouldn’t consider inulin (a type of added fiber), sucralose (an artificial sweetener), and carrageenan (a thickener) “simple.” “Free from” claims, such as no artificial colors, must be truthful. But the food can still be less than healthy. For example, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese proudly proclaims “no artificial flavors, preservatives or dyes” on the package. However, each cup prepared contains 720 mg of sodium.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the November 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Sally Wadyka is a freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports, Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Yoga Journal, and the Food Network on topics such as health, nutrition, and wellness.

December 4, 2017