Sneaky Food Label Tricks

April 10, 2013 | Kait Fortunato

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Food labels embellish. They want to entice you and make you eagerly grab their product, take it home, fall in love and become a dedicated consumer.

We know this, yet we constantly let ourselves get faked out. What has been selling lately are products with seemingly "healthy" labels; but all the advertising and general nutrition chatter among friends make it hard to decipher what are truly the best choices. We get caught up in the labels—"fat-free," "sugar-free," "gluten-free" and so on. (Check out Decoding Food Labels to Improve Your Diet and Performance.)

The key to healthy eating is to become an educated consumer. Here are some things to watch out for when reading food labels in the grocery store.


When we see a product labeled "organic," we tend to believe it's a healthy option. Yet the USDA allows a product to be labeled "organic" if 95% of its ingredients are organic. For example, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese has an organic variety. You know that mac & cheese is not the best, but the organic product has 20 fewer calories, so it's better for you, right? Wrong. The body treats "organic-refined" flour and cheese powder exactly like it does conventional. Junk food is still junk food.

According to the USDA, a food can be labeled "100% Organic" only if 100% of its ingredients are organic. Even sugar can be "100% organic." So shop with caution.

If you're thinking of buying certain foods organic, check out the "Dirty Dozen," the 12 foods that are most likely to be contaminated with pesticides.

Low Calorie

This is a huge food label red flag. Low calorie options should come with a multitude of disclaimers.

First, in order to be labeled "low-calorie," a food item must contain 40 calories or less in a single serving. This may sound fair, but sometimes the numbers don't conform to the serving size. We often assume a drink or snack consists of a single serving, when it actually contains two or more.

That's why rather than looking at calories, you should focus on ingredients. If a serving of peanut butter is only half a tablespoon, it could be considered "low-cal." Speaking of peanut butter, the low-calorie options are not always better. Although peanut butter is high in calories, they are "good-for-you" calories. Low-calorie peanut butter has artificial ingredients to make it taste better.


Three things make food taste good: fat, sugar, and salt. Usually, when producers remove one, they add the others. Rather than worry about the amount of fat in something, pay attention to the kind of fat. Healthy fats are found in nuts, peanut butter, seeds, avocados, olive oil, and salmon, to name a few.


"Sugar-free" is like "fat-free" in that sugar is usually replaced with other unhealthy ingredients. Artificial sweeteners that are substituted for real sugar are not great to consume, as they are not natural for digestion. Look for naturally sweetened foods, including dried fruits, fruit purees, agave or honey.


Gluten-free foods are gaining in popularity. Research shows that there is no need to remove gluten from your diet unless you are sensitive to it.

Many people believe going "gluten-free" is the way to achieve a healthier lifestyle, since it eliminates processed foods. However, there is no need to cut out wheat bread, oats, and other grains that contain gluten, especially if they have complex carbohydrates that are good for you. If you do need to be gluten-free, always double check labels, since even naturally gluten-free foods can be cross-contaminated.

Like "organic," "gluten-free" foods are assumed to be healthy. But a gluten-free brownie is still a brownie. It doesn't magically become healthy.

Make sure you're not setting yourself up for failure. Read up on:

Kait Fortunato
- Kait Fortunato is a registered dietitian at Rebecca Bitzer & Associates, a large and experienced nutrition practice in Maryland. She focuses on individualized nutritional recommendations...
Kait Fortunato
- Kait Fortunato is a registered dietitian at Rebecca Bitzer & Associates, a large and experienced nutrition practice in Maryland. She focuses on individualized nutritional recommendations...
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