Sneaky Food Label Tricks | STACK

Become a Better Athlete. Sign Up for our FREE Newsletter.

Sneaky Food Label Tricks

April 10, 2013 | Kait Fortunato

Must See Nutrition Videos

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...
Must See
Peyton Manning Dumbbell Bench With 80+ Pounds
Views: 33,909,668
Abby Wambach Will Do Whatever It Takes
Views: 2,759,064
RGIII Talks About His Legacy
Views: 22,227,421

Featured Videos

James Harden on Becoming a Franchise Player Views: 72,991
Path to the Pros 2015: Devin Smith Views: 29,436
Blake Griffin Interview and Cover Shoot Views: 574,276
Load More


STACK Fitness

Everything you need to be fitter than ever

STACK Conditioning

Sport-specific conditioning programs

Coaches and Trainers

Tips and advice for coaches and trainers


Latest issues of STACK Magazine


Women's sports workout, nutrition and lifestyle advice


Gaming, entertainment and tech news

Basic Training

Military-style training for athletes


Find the latest news relevant to athletes

Most Popular Videos

Dwight Howard Stays in the Gym All Night
Views: 3,902,816
Two-Ball Dribbling Drill With John Wall
Views: 3,359,811
Colby Lewis's Four-Seam Fastball Technique
Views: 5,011,582
Drew Brees Will Not Be Denied
Views: 7,872,125
Dwight Howard Stays in the Gym All Night
Views: 3,902,816

Load More
More Cool Stuff You'll Like

3 Fruits and 3 Vegetables Athletes Must Eat

Veggies Fueling for athletics requires achieving adequate amounts of macronutrients- carbohydrates, protein and fat. However, in order to keep you...

Small Change, Big Difference: 5 Foods You Should Buy Organic

The Case for Red Meat

10 Easy Ways to Eat Real Food

How to Deal With Your Sugar Cravings

Why You Need Dietary Fiber

Healthy Eating at Restaurants: Decoding a Diner Menu

6 Eating Mistakes That Undo Your Workouts

STUDY: Eat More Fruits and Veggies, Live (Almost) Forever

How Friends and Family Affect Your Food Choices

The Best Foods for Digestive Health

Where the Paleo Diet Falls Short

How Undereating Can Make You Gain Weight

9 Athlete-Approved Peanut Butter Sandwiches

The 6 Worst Foods for Athletes

4 'Bad Foods' That Might be Good for You

Are You Eating Too Much Protein?

7 Foods That Are Ruining Your Workouts

Living Near Fast Food Could Increase Your Odds of Obesity

Healthy Makeovers for 3 Classic Meals

5 Protein-Packed Recovery Shakes

Terrible Toppings: The 5 Worst Things We Put on Food

5 'Good Foods' That Might Be Bad for You

12 Foods Every Athlete Should Eat

Healthy (and Unhealthy) BBQ Ideas For Athletes

You Should Eat the Peel of These 12 Fruits and Vegetables

5 Delicious Ways to Make Junk Food Less Junky

5 Ways to Fuel Your Early Morning Workout

5 Healthy Foods That Got a Bad Rap

Brown Rice vs. White Rice: Does It Really Matter?

10 Athlete-Approved, High-Protein Healthy Cereals

How to Eat Organic Without Breaking the Bank

Load Up on These Foods at Your Backyard Barbecue

6 Healthy Foods You're Overeating

5 Non-Boring Ways To Eat Chicken

The Healthiest (And Unhealthiest) Ways to Eat Chicken

The Cheat Meal Day: Why It's Not So Smart

11 Food Services That Deliver Ready-Made Nutritious Meals

Vegetarian Athlete Tips: Olympic Swimmer Kate Ziegler

Salad Showdown: Which Greens Are the Healthiest?

5 Ways Junk Food Can Mess With Your Head

The Grain Guide: How and Why to Use 8 Healthy Whole Grains

5 'Healthy' Side Dishes That Are Worse Than French Fries

The Boston Cannons'

5 Foods That Are Stunningly High in Sodium

A Sneaky Food Additive Athletes Should Avoid

Spice Up Your Healthy Cooking With These Lively Combos

5 Nutritional Power Combos for Athletes

Fuel Up Fast With 4 Smoothies From the New York Giants