Reading Product Labels:Information from Laura Crooks, Wellness Coach

I want to share this article because Laura makes some fantastic points about misleading food labels and gives great information about how to read them properly.

There will be many people trying to get their eating and weight under control right now–that is probably the most popular New Year’s Resolution…right?

This information could help you and make you a little more aware of what you are eating. Pay attention! That’s what is it truly about!

Misleading and Confusing Food Labels by Laura Crooks

In our quest to eat healthier foods and take care of our bodies we might rely on food packaging labels.  This can be dangerous to our health and undermine our efforts thanks to unregulated and misleading food labels.  The labels can be misleading, confusing, and pose as healthy food imposters.

Food packaging labels are created by companies whose sole purpose is to entice us to buy their product.  Their misleading information implies we are getting health benefits that may not exist.  They may print unsubstantiated health claims, or use pictures of desirable foods to make us think that is what is in the box, or they use cleverly crafted phrases which are not lies, but are also not as honest as they seem at face value.  We are led to believe that fruit snacks are real fruit; they may have a bit of real fruit juice in them, but they are candy.  Frozen dinners with real vegetables may have a bit of powdered vegetable in the sauce, generally not what we think of from the packaging.

Each company can create their own seal of approval or they may purchase the right to use one.

Here are some common food labels and what they mean (or don’t mean!):

100% organic is a USDA regulated term.  The farmer must pay to have the government inspect and certify their farm.  These foods are grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, without hormones or antibiotics, are not cloned or genetically modified.(Remember that smaller farms may follow sustainable, 100% organic procedures but not pay the large assessment fees to be able to label as 100% organic.)   Organic means that 95% of the ingredients are 100% organic.

Made with organic ingredients means that at least 70% of the ingredients are 100% organic.   all natural – This label means that the product is free of preservatives and additives.  It does not mean that the product is good for you or healthy.  Arsenic and lead are all natural, but we try not to eat much of them! low fat – This label means there is less fat than in the regular version.  It does not specify how much less fat, nor does it necessarily mean lower calorie.  Low fat products often have more sugar, added to boost the flavor removed with the fat.

good source of calcium – This means there is at least 10% of your suggested amount of calcium present.  Is 10% enough for you to consider it “good”?

carb free – This means the product has no carbohydrates present.  I have seen this label on fresh meat; the meat is protein, it never was a carbohydrate product, but the label catches our eye.

made with – This label is often followed by something healthy such as real fruit or whole grains, such as “made with real fruit”.  The label itself only means there is at least a drop of the named product present.

0 trans fats – This label is tricky, it does not mean there are NO trans fat in the product.  It can be legally used provided there is less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.  The company only has to adjust their serving size to one with less than 0.5 grams to  meet this labeling requirement.  If you eat more than one serving you are adding up your amount of trans fats.  If fully or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil are in the ingredient list the product has trans fats present.

cage free (usually referring to eggs or chickens) – This means the chickens were raised indoors but not in cages.  Forced molting and beak cutting are allowed.

free range – This term makes you think the chickens get to roam outside all day in green pastures.  It means the chickens are allowed access to the outside but there is not regulation on the duration of outdoor time nor the quality of their outdoor space.  They could have spent a total of 5 minutes outside in dust.   Beak cutting and forced molting are allowed.

humanely raised – This is a totally unregulated term and can mean whatever the manufacturer wants it to mean.  They would like you to picture a clean, healthy living environment!

100% wheat – Your squishy white bread is 100% wheat…it is totally refined wheat flour.  Look for 100% whole wheat for the more nutritious type.  If the ingredient label does not say 100% whole wheat as 1 of the first ingredients  consider it to be refined white flour with some caramel coloring added to make it look brown.

less sodium – This means the product now has less sodium than it once did.  It does not mean it is low in sodium or good for you.

wholesome, nutritious, selected, and country fresh – These claims have no regulated meaning and can almost anything the manufacturer wants.

So how should we make informed choices?

Check the product’s serving size. Is that small bag of microwave popcorn a single serving or intended to serve 3?   The calories and fats need to be tripled when you eat the whole bag intended for 3.  How many servings are in that 24 ounce soda?

Check the nutrient labels. Each serving should provide less than 5% of sodium and saturated fats, regardless of the label saying it is reduced fat or has less sodium.  Aim for more fiber per serving and less sugars.

Read the ingredient labels.  Ingredients are listed in descending order; the first item listed is the most prevalent.  Ingredient lists may not use the most common term for each item.  For example, sugar can be found as: agave nectar, beet sugar, brown sugar, cane juice crystals, corn syrup, corn sweetener, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sugar (sucrose), sorghum syrup, turbinado sugar.

Reading product labels with our eyes open to the fact that manufacturers are more concerned with us spending our money than with our health may help you see some of their labeling for what it is.   Look for these labels in the store and read the fine print on the package.  Reading ingredient lists and nutrient information may help you make better nutrition decisions as well.

Some of the most nutritious and healthiest foods do not come with labels.  Have you ever noticed how fresh, whole fruits, vegetables, and meats do not have pictures or labels?  Make the wisest, healthiest decisions you can.

About Laura Crooks: I am an RN, speaker, and certified wellness coach living in Pittsburgh, PA with my husband and children (plus the bunnies, leopard gecko, and hamster!). I help busy women create solutions so they can enjoy reduced stress, losing weight, balancing personal-professional-family time, and making time to exercise.  My services include individual and group coaching, speaking, and wellness programs.  For more information please visit .

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