Misleading Food Labels

Food manufacturers seem to mislead people into believing that their products are healthier than they really are.  How does an average person cut through the crap?

While our government is supposed to stand up for the people and protect us, at times it seems that they allow us to be misled, and this is certainly true with food advertising.  I can help give you the skinny so you don’t get hit with more calories than you bargained for.

First of all, the “Ingredients” list of a food label is very important.  Manufacturers must list ingredients in descending order (most to least).  You will be amazed at how many products have sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or some other sweetener listed in the top 5 ingredients.  I have seen many products, especially those for kids, have 3 of the first 5 ingredients be sugar or other sweeteners.

A real popular promotion with foods is to label them “whole grain”.  While “whole grain” or “whole wheat” is typically healthier, it is better to look for “100% whole grain/wheat”.  Only then are you getting the health benefits of the entire grain, vs. something made with whole grain flours, which does involve processing and loss of the bran and germ of the grain.  Always chose 100% whole grain when able.

And how many of us know the difference between calorie-free, low-calorie, reduced calories, and light?  How about fat-free, low-fat, reduced fat, and light?  The same terminology can be applied to sugar, cholesterol, and sodium.  It is easy for manufacturers to use this terminology to mislead you into thinking you are making the healthiest selection, but unless you know the rules regarding the use of this terminology, you might not be making the best choice.  To help you with this terminology, I have included a Label Dictionary at the end of this article.

Lastly, I would like to touch on the topic of sugar and food labels, as many people make the same common mistake when reading a label.  Sugars are listed under the Total Carbohydrate section of a label, and many people focus on how much sugar is in the product.  Natural sugars that are found in dairy and fruit are listed as “Sugars” and this should not necessarily scare you away.  Yogurt for example, will have a significant amount of sugar (lactose and fructose respectively) from the dairy and fruit that it contains.  This is not as much a concern as sugar that is added to the product.  To find the added sugar, we turn to the ingredient list mentioned above, and see if sugar or other sweeteners were added.  If you do not see other sweeteners, the sugar it contains must be from the natural ingredients.


Label Dictionary

Just like the Nutrition Facts, nutrient content claims are defined for one serving. For example, that means that a high-fiber cereal has 5 or more grams of fiber per serving.

Nutrient Content Claim Definition (per serving)
Calorie free less than 5 calories
Low calorie 40 calories or less
Reduced or fewer calories at least 25% fewer calories*
Light or lite one-third fewer calories or 50% less fat*
Sugar free less than 0.5 gram sugars
Reduced sugar or less sugar at least 25% less sugars*
No added sugar no sugars added during processing or packing, including ingredients that contain sugars, such as juice or dry fruit
Fat free less than 0.5 gram fat
Low fat 3 grams or less of fat
Reduced or less fat at least 25% less fat*
Light one-third fewer calories or 50% less fat*
Saturated Fat
Saturated fat free less than 0.5 gram saturated fat


Low saturated fat 1 gram or less saturated fat and no more than 15% of calories from saturated fat
Reduced or less saturated fat at least 25% less saturated fat
Cholesterol free less than 2 milligrams cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat
Low cholesterol 20 milligrams or less cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat
Reduced or less cholesterol at least 25% less cholesterols and 2 grams or less saturated fat
Sodium free less than 5 milligrams sodium
Very low sodium 35 milligrams or less sodium
Low sodium 140 milligrams or less sodium
Reduced or less sodium at least 25% less sodium
Light in sodium 50% less*
High Fiber 5 grams or more
Good source of fiber 2.5 to 4.9 grams
More or added fiber at least 2.5 grams more*
Other Claims
High, rich in, excellent source of 20% or more of Daily Value*
Good source, contains, provides 10% to 19% of Daily Value*
More, enriched, fortified, added 10% or more of Daily Value*
Lean** less than 10 grams fat, 4.5 grams or less saturated fat, and 95 milligrams cholesterol
Extra Lean** less than 5 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, and 95 milligrams cholesterol
* as compared with a standard serving size of the traditional food
** on meat, poultry, seafood, and game meats



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