Reading Labels In The Store – Don't Be Fooled By Marketing Lingo!

When you go to the store, are you overwhelmed and confused by what you read on the packages of the foods you buy? If so, you are not alone. Deciphering information on nutritional labels and information on packages can be a real challenge.

Many big corporations and agribusiness conglomerates have learned that people are spurred on by the terms “organic”, “all-natural”, and many others. Most people will just read the label and buy it because it says so. It’s become a marketing tactic that works to persuade the consumer to buy the product.

Recently, the FDA was reported to be cracking down on misleading or deceptive food labels. But traditional and whole food supporters know they haven’t been strict enough. The most recent whistle-blowing that occurred was with the “Smart Choices” (which is laughable, at best) sticker featured on various products – the most infamous one, perhaps, though, was the healthy properties of cereals like Fruit Loops and Cocoa Puffs. Come on, did people really believe this garbage? Well, the New York Times wasn’t convinced.

So if you are wondering about what’s on the label and whether it’s really true, read through this list of common terms used in the grocery store and find out why labels don’t always mean what they say:

All natural – this term is an attempt on the part of the manufacturer to get the consumer to take their word for it that this product you are holding in your hand is natural. A closer look at the ingredients will reveal a number of things you cannot pronounce or don’t recognize. This should always be a red flag.

No additives or preservatives – another ploy by the manufacturer to keep you from actually reading the the ingredients. Again, if you read the ingredients, you will be surprised.

Organic – just because the label reads “organic” does not mean it is healthy. Many processed foods are labeled “organic” but are unhealthy to consume. Some examples include boxed cereals, crackers, cookies, breads, many dairy products, soy products, and dairy products, and meats. A good example is extruded cereal products such as EnviroKidz Organic (don’t you just love the misspelling) Penguin Puffs.

Many companies appeal to a parent’s sense of what is healthy by making cereals that would otherwise be complete junk with organic ingredients. The ingredients may be organic, and are therefore slightly less toxic, but its still junk. I’m just as guilty as many others because I actually used to buy cereals like this for our family. Naturally, my son gobbled them down. I’m really glad I came to my senses.

Look for the USDA green and white symbol on the package and “certified organic” to ensure the product you are buying is truly what it reads on the label.

Realize, too, that some “organic” meat, poultry, and eggs are often from environments that are similar to the classical factory-farm setting. In other words, the food may come from animals in confinement that aren’t afforded the opportunity to roam around in a pasture, and are still likely to be eating the wrong types of  feed.

So even if the food is  “organic” and there are no GMOs being used, the animals may still be in confinement and eating grains, corn, silage, or soy, which alters the nutritional value considerably. Also, the feeding of grains, corn, and soy often causes the animals to become ill – as their bodies are not designed to digest these substances – and this is the whole reason why farmers started administering antibiotics to their livestock and poultry in the first place.

Vegetables and fruits can sometimes even cause problems – such as when you read in the news that so-called “organic” produce has been contaminated with E. coli or salmonella. The most likely reason for this to occur is that true organic standards are not being met. In many instances, these items have been exposed to fertilizer and runoff water sourced from factory farms. This is yet one more example of agribusiness using terminology to sell product but not maintaining the practice of high standards of true organic farming.

Something else some people don’t realize is that just because something is organic doesn’t mean it is a locally-produced product. Many organic foods are shipped all over the country and the world. The carbon footprint of an organic product that has been shipped more than a hundred miles or so is something to consider.

At minimum, organic foods are supposed to be free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics. But keep in mind that it doesn’t mean all other important checkpoints are included.

If you must pick and choose about which produce to buy organic, refer to the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen of most important fruits and vegetables to buy organic.

Visit the Organic Food Database for a wealth of information about organic foods and products, farms and merchants, CSAs, and restaurants.

The Organic Consumer’s Association is another great resource for information and updates in organic food and laws, as well as news about organics in our food system.

To keep up to date on natural and organic foods and product labeling, consumer reports, and to make sure your dollars are paying for what you want, visit GreenerChoices – a subsidiary of Consumer Reports.

Find out why true organic food is healthier for us to eat. Visit the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the oldest and largest state organic organization in the country.

Hormone and antibiotic-free – this can mean that the meat, dairy, or eggs contain no hormones, but it does not mean the animals were grass-fed or chemicals, gmo’s, or other toxins were not present in their environment. If you do not see this wording on a package, it is almost guaranteed that geneticially-modified ingredients are used.

No GMO’s, no genetically-modified ingredients - when you see this wording on packages, no genetically-modified components are used. If you do not see this wording on a package, it is almost guaranteed that genetically-modified ingredients are used.

Interested in real milk with no hormones? Read this article about why the consumption of most milk can be harmful to your health.

Grass-fed – this term is very tricky because currently no standards exist regulating the use of the term “grass-fed”. Grass fed could mean the animals were on pasture for only part of the time, and were fed grains, corn, soy, or silage during some point in their lives. This of course, lowers the nutritional value of the meat.

The only way you are assured 100 percent clean, grass-fed meat is to ask the butcher in the store who deals with someone from the farm. If the butcher doesn’t know, contact the farm to find out all the details. The best way to find out if what you are eating is really grass-fed is to do your own research and contact the farmers themselves. If you would like to learn more about real meat, read this article.

Corn-fed or grain-fed – as mentioned above, this is not a healthy attribute for meat. If you see this on a menu or in the grocery store, reconsider your choice. Find grass-fed meats that are truly grass-fed or pasture-raised for health. For an explanation about why corn-fed meat is unhealthy to eat, read Corn-fed Equals Corn Bred.

Cage free – this might only mean the hens from where the eggs come are in a large, covered barn or facility. Many ‘cage-free’ eggs come from chickens in environments like this where they cannot roam in a pasture, receive sunlight, nor eat and forage for a natural diet. If you have ever watched the film Food, Inc., you can see a perfect example of chicken farms where the birds are ‘cage free’ but are crammed into an enormous building together and never go outside. No, they are not in cages, but they are in a completely unnatural environment.

Free range – this is similar in meaning to “cage free”. Again, these terms can mean the animal or bird spends a majority of its time in a restricted area, and only receives, at most, a few minutes a day away from confinement.

Humanely-raised – again, check with the butcher or farm. This term can also be a marketing gimmick.

Pasture-raised – this should be an assurance that you will have meat, poultry, dairy, or eggs coming from a clean environment – but even sometimes this is just a marketing gimmick. You should still ask the butcher or contact the farm if you want to be absolutely certain.

Whole grains – this one is extremely misleading because a majority of products claiming to contain whole grains do not actually contain the whole grain – it’s usually some type of flour. One of the main reasons many people have trouble with products containing grains – and wheat usually gets most of the blame for this – is because their bodies are rejecting the flour. It’s not the grain itself that’s bad, but the way it is processed. When grains are ground into flour, much of the nutrients are destroyed.

What’s more, grain ground into flour goes rancid quickly. Then add to these issues the fact that many of these products are cooked and extruded, which causes more problems in the nutritional value of the food. For best nutritional value from whole grains, try sprouted and soaked grains.

Gluten-free – this is one of the newest buzz words to hit the market, and it is incredibly misleading. It’s important to understand that just because something is gluten-free does not make it healthy or safe to eat. Some, although not all, gluten free products are still made with flour.

Anything that has been ground into flour – whether it be amaranth, buckwheat, spelt, kamut, almonds, hazelnuts, rice, soy, or sorghum – will go rancid fairly quick. That being said, most if not all of the flour products you buy are already rancid on the shelf when purchased.  Read this article about the gluten-free mania that is sweeping the market, and how it’s not as healthy as people think it is.

The best bet for anyone having trouble with grains is to try soaking and sprouting. Many people who have wheat allergies or even celiac disease have found they can actually eat grains again after a period of detoxification, digestive tract healing (through eating healing foods), and preparing grains properly in this way.

No trans fats – if a label says no trans fat in it, but it’s any type of a processed food, it is very likely that it still contains trans fats anyway. A trans fat is any fat that has been altered from its original state – such as hydrogenation. Hydrogenated oils are unhealthy to consume. And even if the label claims no hydrogenated oils or trans fats, but the ingredients show that it contains an oil that has been heated to a high temperature, or is any type of the following oils – canola, soybean, cottonseed and sometimes sunflower or safflower oils (basically, any vegetable oil), it’s a trans fat.

Non-fat, low-fat, fat-free, or skim – this does not mean a product is healthy – in fact, it usually means quite the opposite. If a food has had its natural fat content removed or altered, you can bet it’s not going to contain the nutritional content of the equivalent food with its full fat.

Eating fat does not make you fat; in fact, fat and cholesterol are essential to a variety of bodily functions, including maintaining a normal weight. Avoid low-fat and non-fat foods like the plague. Always eat foods containing real, full-content fat.

Lean or extra lean - this is often an indicator of meat than has been raised or grown in such a manner that it’s natural fats and proteins are altered. Most factory-farm meats fat and protein compositions are artificially altered by the very methods used to raise the animals. Ironically, factory-farm meats are obese meats, and they create an unhealthy balance in the body when they are eaten because their composition has been altered from what is naturally occurring in nature.

Low calories - This should go without saying, but the only types of foods labeled with remarks about calories are the processed, unhealthy ones. If you are eating real, whole foods, you will never have to count calories. Nature provides the correct amount of calories in all real foods for your body to be healthy.

As an example, if you are a Diabetic and you are counting calories and carbohydrates to keep your blood sugar down, you will probably continue to have problems your entire life. Throw out the processed foods and stop counting calories. You need real, wholesome foods with full fat and calories to balance out your blood sugar and keep your insulin levels in check.

Cholesterol free – this should be suspect. If the food naturally has cholesterol in it, but it has been removed or altered, it would be very unhealthy to consume. Cholesterol is good for you!

Dairy or egg-free – if you see this on a label, there is likely some fake fat or industrially-produced soy product lurking in the “food” to give it some type of semblance of “substance”. And whatever that fake substance is, it’s definitely not good for you. There is nothing wrong with dairy and eggs if it is organic and pasture-raised.

Sugar-free – another misleading label as having no sugar can mean any number of alarming things – the most notable ones being that it might still contain some amount of processed carbohydrates, which translate into sugar in the bloodstream, or that it contains some other substance such as a toxic, artificial sweetener like saccharin, aspartame, sucralose (otherwise known as Splenda), or any other sweetener ending in an -ose.

“Good source of” – is almost always an indicator of some synthetic nutrient added back in or “fortified”. These types of foods are processed, processed, processed and never deliver the nutrition they promise. In addition to being nutritionally-bankrupt, consuming these foods can actually deplete your body of existing nutrients – not unlike a lot of the aforementioned kinds of products.

Vegan – I can’t believe I’m including this one because it should go without saying…but I feel it’s necessary to explain why this term, which is used more and more, is confused with healthy eating. Vegan diets are grossly lacking in nutrition, and almost always contain artificial & fake ingredients. Unless it’s a raw food item, and many vegan foods are not, it’s probably not real food and is likely packed with industrially-produced soy or rancid oils. The same can often apply to foods labeled “vegetarian”.

Because so many agribusiness giants are now cashing in on the organic and natural contingent in food market sales, and it is therefore very difficult to really know how food is grown from products that come from far away, your best bet is to consistently attempt to purchase food locally and from growers you know or trust. Farmers markets are great places to establish these arrangements and relationships. You can talk with farmers and food growers to learn where and how your food is produced.

This is probably not an exhaustive list of all marketing terms used to sell products consumers, and I’m certain I’ve forgotten some. Does anyone have any others they’d like to share?

Want more information about real food? Read this article about knowing your foods and how to understand what you are eating.

Learn about how your toxic load affects your health – from the foods you eat to chemicals used in your home, and elsewhere.

This article is part of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Fridays Carnival. Please visit Kristen’s site and read all the other real food posts there.

10 Comments

  • December 4, 2009 - 8:19 PM | Permalink

    wow you spent a LOT of time writing this.
    thanks for all the info.

  • December 4, 2009 - 10:28 PM | Permalink

    Robin – yes, it took me several days spending a couple of hours each day to write this article. But it’s such an important subject because so many consumers are fooled by labels and marketing. Many people just assume the company selling the food item has their best interest at heart. But really, it all comes down to profits.

    Something I didn’t mention in this article is the fact that many foods are engineered to taste good so that people will become addicted to them. One agent used to accomplish this goal is to use excitotoxins. Here’s an article about the dangers of excitotoxins, found in many processed foods:

    http://agriculturesociety.wordpress.com/2008/08/13/what-are-excitotoxins/

  • December 5, 2009 - 12:47 PM | Permalink

    Since we are allergic to corn and soy we don’t really have to worry too much about any of these label tricks. Usually if it even has a label, it has no business in our cart! In the beginning, we tried to wade through food labels to find “acceptable” products to load into our cart but eventually we realized that even straightforward labels often don’t tell the whole story. When tracking down corn contamination, you will find that it is used (undeclared) to wash, sanitize, polish, lubricate, dust, enrich, etc. and is often used on the packaging before the food even touches it and now the package itself could be made from corn. The worst part for me is how it sneaks into the fresh produce in the form of waxy coatings, and fresh meat in the form of citric acid (luckily most pasture raised meat processing doesn’t involve any corn derivatives – yet another reason to buy pasture raised meat).

    Your information about the ways manufacturers try to mislead consumers with labels is fantastic. People should also be aware that even being an expert at reading labels (and I consider myself one out of necessity) is no guarantee that you can make a truly informed decision. I tend to have trusted companies that I will do business with and avoid the rest like the plague. I like to write emails of praise to companies that are doing things right: Pure Indian Foods, Naturoli, Tropical Traditions, Really Raw Honey, US Wellness Meats, etc. and voice my disapproval of underhanded tactics by GMO loving companies. I urge others to do the same. Did you know Haagen Dazs is using GMO beet sugar in their ice cream, now?

  • December 5, 2009 - 4:03 PM | Permalink

    KC – I agree with your statements completely, and I really don’t buy “products” in packages anymore either. I just figured this article really needed to be written because it illustrates so thoroughly that since there are so many foods that aren’t safe to eat (and the list is so long, even endless), we should all be switching over to real, traditional, whole, organic, sustainable, and local foods. In fact, if you read this article and don’t come to this conclusion, it’s possible that you just may never understand exactly what is going on in the messed up world of the food system. I think it reiterates with each item on the list how careful you have to be and how real food is pretty much the only thing to eat if you want to be healthy.

    I didn’t realize that corn was used to wash, sanitize, polish, etc. food products. But it just goes to show you how ubiquitous all these poisonous substances are in the food system. Scary! I’m glad we don’t buy processed foods anymore for so many reasons. I love Pure Indian Foods, Tropical Traditions, and US Wellness Meats. Haven’t yet tried Really Raw Honey or Naturoli yet. And yes, it’s so important to contact these companies and get to know their methods and procedures for producing the food they make. I have certainly called many food producers and asked about the content and production of their foods. I’m not surprised about Haagen Dasz, as they are a large, publicly traded company, and I never trust companies falling in those categories. That’s why I used the examples of Wheat Thins and even “organic” cereals, because I know so many people eat these foods believing they are just fine. I hope it’s a wake up call for many people.

  • December 5, 2009 - 8:43 PM | Permalink

    Raine – I loved this post – it comes at a time when I recently was thinking so much on labels and labeling and what do they really mean. And coming to the conclusion that so much of it is marketing and misleading to get one to buy from them. I am such a label reader shopping takes a lot longer than norm. Even at the health food stores I read the labels and have found some false labeling that I wish the stores would wake up to these facts and give attention to whom they are actually purchasing from to sell to the public.

  • kar
    February 13, 2010 - 1:15 PM | Permalink

    Good information, but I would suggest you reword or remove the following statement: “Many people who have wheat allergies or even celiac disease have found they can actually eat grains again after a period of detoxification, digestive tract healing (through eating healing foods), and preparing grains properly in this way.” No amount of soaking or sprouting will eliminate enough gluten for someone with celiac to safely eat it.

  • February 13, 2010 - 4:04 PM | Permalink

    Kar – Note I used the word “many”, not “all”. I have read about and seen testimony of people with celiac disease who could consume grains that are soaked. It depends on the person, and each individual needs to decide and use cautionary measures when attempting to eat grains that are prepared properly.

    The entire nature of celiac disease is that the intestinal tract has been destroyed by improper foods consumed in the diet – as far as it being hereditary – some of that could be, I’m not denying that. But celiac disease can arise as a result of consuming toxic substances – those substances actually cause the lining of the intestinal tract to attack itself – it is an auto-immune over response in the body, like other allergy issues, albeit, an extreme one.

    Please know that eating gluten-free does not get celiac and wheat intolerances off the hook – eating anything that has been ground into flour causes the food to become rancid quickly, and this can cause a variety of problems in the digestive tract and overall health. Continued consumption of so-called gluten-free substances that are intended to be replacements for wheat and wheat products will eventually cause the same result. Please see the following article for more information on this subject: http://www.agriculturesociety.com/?p=427 (The Big Gluten Free Lie)

  • kar
    February 13, 2010 - 7:56 PM | Permalink

    I’m quite familiar with celiac disease, it’s nature, and that most foods labeled “gluten-free” are crap. Celiac is an autoimmune disorder. I’m not going to argue its cause is not diet-related (rather than just genetic), because I suspect that may be true. However, I assure you that it is not safe for people with *actual* celiac disease to ever eat gluten. Soaking and sprouting wheat does not eliminate the gluten. Yes, people with celiac will heal their gut by eliminating gluten from their diet. And they will damage it again by ingesting any gluten. I’m sure that people that are sensitive to gluten who take the steps recommended by WAPF to prepare grains do tolerate it well. Sensitivity to gluten is NOT celiac disease. You seem to be very thorough in your research; I would think that for something as serious as an autoimmune disorder you would not use anecdotal evidence to fall back on.

  • February 13, 2010 - 10:02 PM | Permalink

    Kar – From the research I have seen (and I’ve reviewed A LOT of it), there is no convincing, hardcore scientific evidence that proves without a doubt that celiacs cannot have ANY gluten from properly prepared grains. Unfortunately, some people require that scientific evidence before they will believe something. But the reality is, much of what I have learned about health in the last few years since my awakening to alternatives in health, and that has consistently been true and actually works,has been based on observation (empirical evidence, as it is known), and originates from what you refer to as anecdotal evidence. This is because western medicine and its tendencies to fit everything into a box and put a scientific theory backed up by such and such research does not allow for any other method of truth.

    As to whether they can eat gluten from commercially packaged products, I say this would not be a sound idea. Now, does that mean that a person with celiac should eat properly prepared grains with gluten in them every day? Probably not. And some people should not, but it should be on a case-by-case basis.

    I think any doctor who tries to tell a patient that he or she cannot ever eat any grains with gluten that are properly prepared has really no basis for making this statement until the person is allowed to try it for him or herself – because some people can without problems, while some people cannot.

    Donna Gates from the Body Ecology believes that celiac disease is also the result of an unbalanced inner ecosystem, and I agree. Celiac problems originate in the digestive tract, and it is through healing of this organ that normalcy can again be achieved. Healing must come from consuming probiotic foods and foods with prebiotics (from grains) that heal the gut and promote healthy microflora: http://www.bodyecology.com/07/04/19/gluten-sensitive_eat_fermented_grains.php

    Here is a well-written and supported article on the WAPF web site about celiac disease and consuming gluten after healing. I would definitely agree with its conclusions, which match with what I’ve outlined here.

  • February 13, 2010 - 11:56 PM | Permalink

    Kar – also, the soaking and fermenting of grains does not remove the gluten, but alters it or neutralizes its effects on the digestive tract, rendering it less irritating to the intestinal wall. The reason gluten causes problems is because it is a complex protein that can actually penetrate the intestinal wall lining, go into the bloodstream, and cause auto-immune response to the foreign invader within that environment. If the substance is neutralized, the reaction will be far less severe, thus causing less penetration of the lining of the intestine.

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