Understanding What Food Packaging Says

There is hardly a week that passes that my dieticians and I don’t hear about how healthy someone thinks he is eating.  After all, he’ll tell us, I am careful to buy products with no harmful ingredients.  Or, we hear about how someone eats low salt, low sugar, no additives, etc.  The problem is, he is being fooled into buying “healthy” food that really isn’t healthy at all.

If you do the shopping, you have undoubtedly seen many “catchy” words or phrases on the packages of food you buy.  “No Preservatives”, “ No Artificial Flavors”, “ No Artificial Colors”, “Natural”, “Organic”, “Cage-Free Eggs,” “Pastured”, “Vegetarian-fed chickens”, “Grass-fed” or “Grass-Finished” beef,  “Low-fat” or “reduced-fat”. You might have seen “gluten-free, fat-free, and all-natural.” “No MSG.” Do these terms mean anything to you at all?

In the United States, every third adult (35.7%) is obese, as is almost every fifth youth (17%) (Ogden et al. 2012). However, the rise in health claim labels on food packages has not correlated with a healthier population. Why?

Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is a physician, professor and weight loss specialist in Ottawa, Ontario. He points out that there’s good reason to be skeptical about claims on food labels “If the front of a package needs to convince you of the healthfulness of its contents, there’s a darn good chance its contents aren’t healthful,” says Freedhoff.  In fact, the average consumer makes over 200 food-related decisions each day. Researchers describe most of these choices as being on “mindless auto-pilot,” (Wansink & Sobal 2007).

In contrast to this “mindlessness” is the sophisticated marketing of the food marketing industry. In 2012, $116 million was spent marketing healthy fruits and vegetables. That sounds pretty impressive, until you consider that $4.6 billion was spent marketing fast food (Orciari 2012). And marketers have become increasingly likely to make heavy use of health claims on the front of food packages.

Why the Manufacturer Labels this Way

Product names and product descriptions have both been shown to influence buying decisions. The name of a food has a strong influence on the degree to which consumers expect the product to be tasty, filling or fattening. These expectations, however, are often detached from reality (Chandon & Wansink 2012).buying “healthy” food

A well-known brand or product description also impacts taste expectations, experiences and retrospective evaluations of the eating experience (Chandon & Wansink 2012). Science has shown that items with descriptive names (words like “succulent” , “mouthwatering”, “delicious”) attract a greater number of positive comments and are rated as more appealing, tasty and caloric.  The bottom line is that the prime location for labeling is the front area of the package and that stands out as consumers stroll through the shopping aisles. However, people are less likely to check the more accurate Nutrition Facts Label on the back or side of food packaging when front-of-package labeling exists (FDA 2009).

Research tells us that people think foods with front-of-package health claims (“rich in omega-3,” “supports immunity,” “low-fat,” etc.) have fewer calories and are better for their health. This phenomenon is known as the “health halo effect.”  It’s an area extensively studied by Brian Wansink, PhD, a marketing professor and behavioral economics expert at Cornell University in New York.  Front-of-package claims “cause us to believe the food product is much healthier than it actually is,” says Wansink. And health claim labels like “free-range, gluten-free, pesticide-free” and “antioxidant-laden” cause consumers to think, “The more [of this food] we eat, the better.” People typically eat 44% more when there is a health claim on the front label,” he adds.

The practical effects of the health halo effect have been summarized by author Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. She wrote “Health claims sell food products. People like buying products with a ‘health aura,’ no matter how poorly the health claim is supported by science. Science is irrelevant here. Marketing is what’s relevant”.  What’s the end result?  Consumers usually believe front-of-package claims, perceive them to be government-endorsed and use them to ignore the more evidence-based Nutrition Facts Label on the back or side of the packaging (Nestle & Ludwig 2010).


“But it’s all natural” proclaims Isaac, a client of mine.  I try over and over again to explain that it
might be natural, but you are eating too much of it and you are taking something “natural” and causing yourself harm by over eating.  I also tried to convey to Isaac that just because the food packaging said the word “natural”, doesn’t mean there isn’t some processing involved with the food.

The word “natural” helps to sell over $40 billion a year in food products in the United States (Ferdman 2014).  Nearly 60% of people look for the word “natural” when they shop for food, and about two-thirds believe it means that a processed food has no artificial ingredients, pesticides or genetically modified organisms (CRNRC 2014). In reality, the term is largely devoid of meaning because there is virtually no regulation from government bodies in this area.

Low-Fat, Fat-Free and Reduced-Fat

Miriam came to me two years ago and she was obese.  At the intake with our dietitian, she was emphatic about how she ONLY used low-fat and fat-free products and she couldn’t understand how she became obese if this had been her practice for years and years.  What she didn’t realize was that just because there is no fat, doesn’t mean there are no calories. And she also had no idea that many of these products contain artificial sweeteners which we now know can cause metabolic problems that cause weight gain and diabetes.Low-Fat, Fat-Free and Reduced-Fat

Reduced-fat is a popular term that is really almost meaningless as it is only a relative term.  Reduced-fat foods must have at least 25% less fat than regular versions of those foods (Web MD 2014). The key point is that “reduced” is relative only to the original product of comparison, not to a healthful standard, says New York–based food expert Teri Mosey.  For instance, many of us buy reduced-calorie or reduced-fat mayonnaise and it is true that compared to the regular product, it is less calories and fat.  It is 90 calories per serving whereas the “light” version is about half that, but as a serving is one tablespoon, when you are putting in multiple servings, it adds up quickly.

Things are not usually what they seem to be on the food package.  Being attentive, staying educated and learning how to read the food label on the reverse side of the package will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”



  1. Thanks for the info. Very interesting, especially how people eat more if they think it’s healthy, and they often misunderstand what ‘natural’ means. Definitely trigger words the manufacturers are making the best of.

  2. […] 5. Loading Up on Low-Fat: Low-fat products can play an important role in your diet. Just remember that low-fat isn’t the same as low-calorie, and it’s not a license to take second and third helpings. If you pile your plate with low-fat cake, you may end up eating more calories than if you had a smaller slice of regular cake. The best way to know how much fat, sugar, and calories you’re getting is to check the nutritional label. […]

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