Important Update: Calorie Count will be shutting down on March 15th. Please click here to read the announcement. Data export is available.
subscribe Signup for our Newsletter expand Expand Browser
Calorie Count Blog

Don't Let Deceptive Food Labeling Derail Your Diet

By +Carolyn Richardson on Aug 04, 2012 10:00 AM in Healthy Eating

By Carolyn Richardson

Going to the grocery store is much like going window shopping. Just as the mannequin's clothing is pinned and tucked to make them look perfect, food items on display are complete with pretty pictures and health claims that are enticing. But the big difference between shopping for clothes and shopping for food is you can try an item on in a dressing room before you spend your hard-earned cash. But without checking out, most food purchases are based solely on front-of-package labels. Sure many grocers provide samples of certain items to customers, but it's few and far between.

Picture Perfect

A recent article in Consumer Reports shows just how disparate pictures of food on the box is from what's inside. Aside from making food appear larger than the serving inside, food companies also dress up food to look fresher, healthier, and more colorful than the real thing. It's the deceptive practice that keeps food stylists and photographers in business. To guard yourself from buying less food than you expected, check the box size and serving size of similar items from another manufacturer. Even if the numbers differ a bit, you'll be able to tell which is the better value. Most stores also post the cost per ounce of items on the shelf. This will help you save money as well. If a certain item boast chunky, succulent chunks of vegetables, check to see where certain vegetables are listed in the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. If vegetables are far down the list, don't bet you'll get what's pictured.

Accentuate the Positive

Nice how certain packaged foods point out the most positive thing they've got to offer without mentioning the downside. Wouldn't it be nice to see, 'low-sodium, but high sugar' in bold letters? I'm sure you've seen the fat-free and sugar-free claims as well, but I've bet you've never seen all three on one label. The reason is most processed foods need a little help in the taste department. In the absence of fresh herbs and spices adding flavor, you might find sugar, oil, and salt as the major ingredients in foods that make these health claims. Check the serving size of the foods that carry these claims and you may find they are smaller than the regular, seemingly less healthy version. Also, bear in mind just because it says it's reduced fat doesn't mean it's significantly less calories. A fat-free vs. regular calorie comparison on the National Institutes of Health's website shows the caloric difference is usually small, between 10 and 30 calories less per serving for items such as frozen yogurt, peanut butter, and tortilla chips.

Risk Increasing Nutrients

A tuna can claims to be a good source of omega-3's, but 18 grams of fat per serving is a disqualifying amount. That's what a lawsuit against Bumble Bee Foods is claiming, saying their product is misbranded because it doesn't disclose the presence of "risk increasing nutrients" like saturated fat and sodium. The Facts-Up-Front program introduced by the the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute was supposed to address this very issue, but the truth is, it's keeping consumers' eyes from reading the FDA regulated nutrition facts label. The label is required to include a per serving accounting of calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars. The issue however is the fact that unlike the nutrition facts label, the Facts-Up-Front label doesn't include the total number of servings in a package, nor does it delineate if sugars are added or naturally occurring. The additional icons, such as the potassium and fiber tidbits below, can be those the food manufacturer deems as "nutrients to encourage" consumption of.

Another deceptive way food manufacturers catch your eye is by branding reformulated items as healthier. For example, 'now less sugar,' or 'no high fructose corn syrup.' But these misleading claims only point out the fact that these products may have been retooled with artificial sweeteners and food additives that most of us may not easily find in the longer ingredient list. For example, a more fiber claim may mean the addition of inulin, a food additive that's been proven to cause gastrointestinal discomfort. A no trans fat claim, may mean a switch to corn or cottonseed oil, hardly a healthful solution.

Your thoughts...

Do you read the "facts up front" nutrition icons or the full nutrition facts label on the back?


My husband and I read the nutrition facts and compare.  We've only started doing this since using CalorieCount and tracking what we eat.  But it has been eye-opening.  As mentioned, many times it doesn't make much sense to go with a fat-free version of a product.  We've found that a lot of times they are much higher in sodium than the regular product.  There seems to always be a trade-off, you just have to find it.

Re:  Reduced fat peanut butter, you can make your own reduced everything peanut butter by makeing your own, all you need is a food processor and peanuts! (And there's always PB2 powder, which like is peanut butter with a lot less fat).

Explain to me why the hell is saturated fat considered a "high-risk ingredient"? There is no reason to be scared of fat. Fat will not make you fat, unless you're stupid and take in amounts of sugar at the same time. So unless you're eating your tuna with sugar sprinkled on top, there's nothing to worry about.

Read the labels! yesterday i was in the supermarket and saw what looked like a healthier version of my favorite tortilla. All the "right" words were on the packaging and I almost just threw it into my cart...then decided to compare the nutrtional info onthe two products. TUrned out my favorite tortilla was lower in calories, fat, sodium, and even carbs... and higher in fiber, even though the new one was "whole grain".

CC has made me a fanatic label-reader now...not only am I looking at the nutritional data more carefully, I am now able to also assess how a serving of a food item will impact my daily nutrtional intake because i am becoming more aware of my daily limits and recommended intakes.

Which also leads me to the idea of serving size...another important piece of information! Obviously, you can't weigh or measure a serving size in the supermarket, but look at how many servings are specified and then look at the package size and visualize it divided that many times and consider if that is going to be sufficient for you. it really works!

I 2nd adaknits comments on fat. A doctor recently encouraged me to eat something like a burger once per week because "you need fat".  Just that I stopped eating red meat, but try to get my fats elsewhere.  I have had my moments with the food labels also & usually choose high salt over high sugar content. most of the time it is easier to soak or wash the salt off. for example, I buy lightly salted planters peanuts and wash the peanuts before eating. 

LOL, tuna is not the problem, especially not fat from tuna.  If people stuck with less processed whole foods and didn't eat ALL the time, the nation would not be as obese as it is today.

TUNA fat is excellent for your health.

The problem is the seed oils that they often include in the packaging. I still don't understand the fat-paranoia on here though :/

I'm a firm believer in the old saying, "Liars can figure and figures can lie". The food manufacturers and distributors will say and do anything to get anyone to buy their product, so we have to be skeptical of everything we see and read. Be smart and compare products and note the bad and good ones.

adaknits,  Both trans fat and saturated fat are considered “bad” fats because they increase the risk of developing heart disease and stroke.  The American Heart Association recommends people enjoy an overall healthy diet and lifestyle to combat cardiovascular disease, and eat less than 7 percent of total calories as saturated fat and less than 1 percent as trans fat.

Minimizing the risk of heart disease is a really good thing.

According to National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute -- Risk factors are conditions or habits that make a person more likely to develop a disease. They can also increase the chances that an existing disease will get worse. Important risk factors for heart disease that you can do something about are:

  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Being physically inactive
  • Having a family history of early heart disease
  • Age (55 or older for women) isk-factors.htm

I'm at the lowest risk of dying of a heart attack than I have been this century. I consume fats -- mostly olive and canola oils -- in small quantities on a regular basis.

I had a minor heart attack likely nine years ago when I had a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and a stent in a heart artery almost eight years ago. When I received my stent I was obese plus more than 75 pounds. In the past week I passed the threshold below obesity.

It took a lifestyle change. I do the treadmill and am really quite physically active.

I love real butter. But, I love a healthy heart more. So, I still use butter on occasions. But, mostly avoid using any when eating out.

Hope this helps someone!

Thank you for writing this. It's very important in this age of processed foods to read labels carefully and be aware of what you're putting into your body.

I think one of the most misleading things manufacturers do on labels is separate the sugar ingredients.  For instance, I look at labels to see if sugar is one of the first items on the ingredient list.  But manufacturers sometimes use several types of sugar in a product, so sugar may appear as the sixth ingredient on the list, but reading further, you can see that sugar, sucrose, fructose, cane sugar, corn syrup, etc., may also be listed.  If these sugar amounts were combined, they would appear much higher in the list, if not the first (most prevalent) ingredient.

It's true that since I started using CC  I became more aware of reading nutritional facgt labels... I also hate (and as much as possible starting boycotting !!!!)  labels which are not detailed enough,,, (e.g. a dairy product which just specifies carbs, fats and protein and does not give any info about calcium, for example... Last Saturday during my shopping spree, I even replaced items back on their shelves  because tyey had no label at all!!!!  I couldn't believe how htis is possible!!!!  


Post Your Comment

Join Calorie Count - It's Easy and Free!