Nutrition label confusion and how to avoid it

Aug 6, 2013 at 8:00 a.m. ET

Are you spending your money wisely on groceries? Do you get confused or swayed by product packaging and labels? Do your homework before your next trip to the grocery store and don’t fall prey to marketing gimmicks.

Woman looking at nutrition labels

Billions of dollars are spent on food and beverage marketing each year. While many food and beverage manufacturers have our best interests at heart, at the end of the day it is all about the bottom line and we are responsible for what we put into our body.

It’s all about the packaging and image, how well the product stands out and displays on the shelf. Consumers are often swayed by vibrant colors, unique packaging and yes, even a higher price point, believing that that particular product is better than the rest. Consumers need to arm themselves with nutritional knowledge before buying a product based upon what the label is "selling”!

A nutrition label might read:

  • Contains antioxidants
  • Doctor-recommended
  • Free-range (can mean anything from an animal that roams freely to one that is let out of its cage from time to time)
  • Immunity formula
  • Kid-approved
  • Made with whole grains
  • May lower cholesterol
  • Natural (for non-meat or -poultry products)
  • Natural goodness
  • No trans fat
  • Parent-tested
  • Strengthens your immune system
  • Calcium-fortified
  • Low-fat
  • Low-sodium

What do all these labels mean? In fact, most of these descriptions are all just marketing ploys to encourage shoppers to purchase their product over the competitor’s product. Some claims may be true, some may be based on loose qualifications.

A crash course on label language

  • Sugar should not be at the top of the ingredient list. There are a lot of different names for sugar, so do not be fooled. When you see "high-fructose corn syrup," don’t even consider it!
  • Look for "whole grains,” because they are better for you than refined and enriched grains. The less processing, the better.
  • Avoid anything that is hydrogenated. Back in 2006 the FDA started requiring food manufacturers to list trans fats. Terms to watch out for include anything that says "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated," along with vegetable shortening or margarine, which may also be hydrogenated.
  • Look for foods with the non-GMO label. GMO stands for genetically modified organism(s) and have been linked to cancer and other serious diseases.
  • Always check the serving size. The label on the front of the bottle may say "only 35 calories” but an entire bottle (which you might consume in one sitting based upon its average size) may have five servings, so you are getting 175 calories.
  • The fewer ingredients, the better. If you can’t pronounce it or it takes you a long time to read through the ingredients, don’t waste your money or risk your health.

Up next: Common food label confusions >>

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