How Labels Lead You to Believe Your Food is Healthier than it Really Is (Spoiler Alert)

In preparation for a presentation that I'm giving on FfL-friendly foods, I (Kalie) decided to head to the grocery store last week to snap some pictures of prepackaged food labels and their ingredients.

As I walked up and down the aisles with my camera, I found it comical (okay, more like alarming) at how many manufacturers use labels to catch our attention and entice us. The sad thing is… their intentions (and products) aren’t always pure. 

Be aware of a label’s claim to healthy fame.

We’ve been programmed to identify with words such as organic, all natural, gluten-free, healthy, lean, low-carb, low-calorie, low-fat, fat-free, diet, light, reduced-fat, real and non-GMO. But after taking a closer look, you’d be surprised how misleading these “comfort words” may be. 

I like to call it “The Label Illusion!”

What I found during my little FULLfoods field trip was countless, and I mean COUNTLESS, foods whose labels insinuated they were "healthy" when they were actually FAR from it. At one point I even tossed my hands up in the air and let out a little, "What the heck?!" As if shopping for healthy food isn't confusing enough, now we all have to worry about the sincerity of the label too?

Because shopping for healthy foods can be so confusing, I wanted to break down a few words that most of us gravitate to. 

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Words that sound healthy but aren't necessarily Nutritious

Confusing "Healthy" Word #1: Organic


When you see the word organic, you may automatically think it means the food is much better for you. But the organic label is a little trickier than that. Not only can "organic" foods still contain synthetic ingredients (read more about that HERE), the food itself may not be all that healthy. 

Here's what I mean: Organic isn't a label that magically makes BAD FOOD good for you. 

Organic white sugar is still white sugar. If you're eating a big bag of chips, organic or not, they're still junk food. Organic ice cream is still a dessert and organic cereal can still be FILLED with sugar and other ingredients that should eliminate it from making the top of your "healthy" list. 

For the most part, organic foods have lower levels of pesticides, growth hormones and antibiotics (that's definitely a plus). So I'm not saying don't buy organic, just take a moment to flip the box over, look at the ingredients and understand what you're actually eating before tossing it into your cart.

Confusing "Healthy" Word #2: Gluten-Free


Gluten-free is another word that's often associated with healthy. But just like organic, gluten-free chips are still chips and gluten-free bread doesn't mean it's made with the best ingredients. 

Not only do gluten-free foods tend to be lower in folate, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin (essential micronutrients that are involved in energy metabolism), gluten-free foods often have less fiber and more sugar and fat. In fact, several studies have found a trend toward weight gain and obesity among those who follow a gluten-free diet.

While we try to keep our household relatively gluten-free, we're careful not to just pick something up off the shelf because it states it doesn't contain wheat. As always, check the ingredients and choose gluten-free foods and with real-food ingredients.

Confusing "Healthy" Word #3: Fat-Free


Attention shoppers: Put down that ball of "skinny" mozzarella and and step away from the reduced-fat crackers!

Many people think that low-fat and fat-free foods are healthy alternatives to our favorite foods. But foods labeled fat-free, reduced fat and low-fat often contain additives like salt, sugar and chemical fillers to make up for the loss of fat (taste), which renders them poor nutritional choices that often result in weight gain.

Here's the thing, our bodies need healthy fats to keep our cell walls strong, absorb important vitamins and regulate our hormones. Healthy fats also help us feel satisfied after eating. Without that fat, you want to continue eating because you don't feel satiated. Several studies show that people who tend to eat fat-free foods eat twice as much (or more) of these foods. 

Rather than looking for low-fat products, concentrate on eating fats that are naturally occurring, found in whole foods and are healthy for you (whole milk, yogurt, nuts, olive oil, avocados, salmon, etc.). If you do reach for a low-fat version of one of your favorites, be sure to check the label for familiar, nutrient-dense ingredients and a minimal amount of sugar before ringing it up at the register.

Other Confusing Words

  • All natural
  • Multigrain
  • Healthy
  • Lean
  • Low-carb
  • Low-calorie
  • Low-fat
  • Diet
  • Light
  • Reduced-fat
  • Sugar-free
  • Real
  • Non-GMO

To sum it up, countless foods are labeled with these words but are still highly processed, making them not all that healthy (and yet often more expensive). The truth in how “healthy” a food actually is can be found in the ingredients and how the food item was made, grown or raised.

General rule: Don’t grab a food item because of claims on the label. Look at the ingredients and decide for yourself!

If you want the full breakdown on what ingredients to look for, ones to avoid and healthy foods in general, you'll find it right here.

Let's shop for nutrient-dense food — together!


Cheers to a healthy lifestyle and living FULLforLife!

xo, Pam & Kalie

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