Nutrition Articles

The Loopholes of Food Labeling

What Food Manufacturers Don't Want You to Know

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"Whole Grains"
This is one of the most popular marketing claims of late, and the most confusing. Today we see "whole grain" logos on almost all grain products, including sugary breakfast cereals. The reality is that refined white flour—with just a touch of whole wheat added back in—can be listed as “whole grain.” A food manufacturer can use the term "whole grain" no matter how much whole wheat the product contains. What the various "whole grain" terms actually mean may surprise you:
  • "Made with Whole Grains": All it needs is one tiny bit of whole grains to use this claim, which means nothing for your health.
  • "Wheat flour" or "100 percent wheat": Again, this is a ploy that tries to fool consumers. You want to look for "whole wheat flour" or "100 percent whole wheat", not just the word "wheat."
  • "Multigrain": This doesn't explain whether the grains are refined or whole, just that there is more than one type of grain. Multigrain has no proven health benefits, especially if all those grains are refined, and they probably are (unless the ingredients list proves otherwise).
  • "Whole grain": This term is also misleading, because whole grains can contain various blends of grains that are refined. You want to avoid words like enriched and bleached on the ingredients label. You can only trust the term "100 percent whole grain" to be a healthy choice.
  • "X Grams of Whole Grains": Don't let the grams of whole grains in a food confuse you. A food can claim that it's a "Good Source" of whole grains, but that does not mean it's high in fiber (it may have little to none).
When it comes to grain-based foods, you can't trust the words on the face of the package. Double-check and look at the ingredients list every time, looking for keywords like "whole wheat flour" to be first on the list. Additives like sugar and corn syrup shouldn't appear in the top of the ingredients list of a healthy food. If a food is high in whole grains, it'll have protein and fiber to boot. Be aware that manufacturers won't necessarily call their processed flours "refined" on the label. Anything that is listed as corn, rice, wheat, or oat flour IS processed and refined unless it specifically tells you that it is "whole".

"Fat Free"
"Fat-free" food labels may also tempt you to believe these are healthier food selections. Sometimes this can be helpful, like when choosing skim milk over higher fat varieties. But take the time to read labels. When a meat label boasts that it's 95% fat free, it sounds like a healthy choice since only 5 percent of it is fat. But fat contains a lot of calories, so check out the nutrition facts label for the actual number of calories and fat grams per serving.

An example of an unhelpful fat-free claim is a carton of 100% orange juice. Here, a fat-free claim isn’t helpful labeling, even though it is truthful. Oranges are naturally fat-free, so 100% orange juice always has and always will be fat-free, regardless of whether it is highlighted on the label or not.
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About The Author

Tanya Jolliffe Tanya Jolliffe
Tanya earned a bachelor's degree in dietetics and nutrition and has more than 20 years of experience in nutrition counseling and education. She is a member of the American Association of Diabetes Educators. See all of Tanya's articles.

Member Comments

  • Just because something is "natural" or "organic" doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Arsenic is totally natural and organic, for example. So are cobras. - 9/3/2014 1:18:01 PM
  • I disagree with the statement that healthy foods shouldn't contain sugar. I bake most of our breads from scratch - I even grind wheat berries for some of the flour - and you cannot make a yeasted bread without sweetener. I normally use honey or molasses, but there's nothing wrong with using sugar.

    Articles like this remind me how few people actually read the nutrition facts and ingredients labels on the food they're consuming, and that's both tragic and foolish. It seems to me that a lot of people take better care of their cars than they do of their bodies. - 4/30/2014 1:28:26 PM
  • That was an eye opener - 1/10/2014 11:31:52 AM
  • I wish they would just tell us the truth! - 10/18/2013 7:23:45 AM
  • The packaging that kills me are the ones that only one serving (personal pizza, etc), but then the nutritional info shows 2+ servings. Almost got me yesterday! - 6/4/2013 1:15:57 PM
  • It didn't say "in one sitting." It said "over time." You don't buy a box of cookies, eat one serving, and throw the rest away, do you? - 3/16/2013 2:32:44 PM
  • No offense, but who eats that many cookies in one sitting? - 2/3/2013 8:18:06 PM
  • let's not forget those labelsare based on 2000 calories or more in a day so if your limit is 1200 to 1600 you got to do the math for that also
    the lady mary - 1/18/2013 5:51:51 PM
  • Oh, and the author missed the latest mislabeling fads.

    Organic as in Organic potato chips made with organic potatoes (OK) deep-fried (Not stated but Yikes) in organic canola oil (really? almost all canola is GM and therefore NOT organic) with Organic Sea-salt (What is THAT?)

    Gluten-free plastered on fruit products, corn products, vegetable products. Hello? If it's not made from wheat, barley, rye, or some oats, it's gluten free. Period! You don't have to tell me. - 9/7/2011 2:16:08 PM
  • I love "Made with Natural Cane Sugar" because there is no such thing. Cane sugar is a highly processed food additive much along the same lines as HFCS and agave "nectar" aka powdered honey (which it is neither nectar or honey). The only only only natural sweetener in raw honey. Everything else is highly processed. - 9/7/2011 2:08:09 PM
  • "An example of an unhelpful fat-free claim is a carton of 100% orange juice. Here, a fat-free claim isn’t helpful labeling, even though it is truthful. Oranges are naturally fat-free, so 100% orange juice always has and always will be fat-free, regardless of whether it is highlighted on the label or not. "
    Why didn't the article tell us about how much sugar is in juice? Not to mention how much fructose. Things to avoid if you're trying to be fructose free are, honey, fruit juices and dried fruit, all are very high in sugar/fructose, and FRUCTOSE MAKES YOU FAT. Do the research yourselves, people. Eat only whole frutit.....Still waiting for SparkPeople to put the relevant sugar content of every recipe on the 1st page of the recipe's nutritional list.
    I'm fructose free and have lost 9.8 kilos by giving it up.
    Note, if the sugar grams per 100 gtrams is more than 8 grams, don't buy the product, as that is way too much, especially if you take into account all the other stuff we put into our mouths every day. Aim for no more that 10 grams of sugar a day & you will lose weight, I promise.
    Sylv from Oz
    Spreading the Love - 6/4/2011 6:18:24 PM
  • My food lable question is always the same...Is the serving size based on the pre cooked or cooked measure??? Like with pasta??? - 3/5/2011 6:42:22 PM
  • This makes me want to be a kitchen goddess and make my own bread, and use only unprocessed ingredients!! HEehee. I love the information here, and it's great to find new ways to try to improve the health of what I choose to consume.

    I try to purchase and eat simple ingredients. I don't think I'll have the time to be that kitchen goddess that I envision, but I can be the working version of her, hold her inside me to help guide me, just as SparkPeople does!!

    Jocelyn - 12/27/2010 2:22:24 PM
  • Fat free has fooled me many times!! So has whole grains!! Thank you for the article!! - 12/2/2010 4:55:16 PM
  • Also, if a product says 30% (or whatever) less fat, the FDA defines this a being only 30% less grams than the original product. Why is this bad? Well those Milky Ways with "less fat" or mearly smaller than the original product, no ingredients are altered. - 9/8/2009 12:47:28 AM

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