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MEGAN MONDAY: Misleading Nutrition Claims and Food Marketing Manipulation – How to Be an Educated & Informed Consumer

Posted Aug 05 2013 1:53pm

nutirion label If there’s one important piece of advice I could make stick in everyone’s head who is interested in wanting to eat and be healthier, it would be to READ THE INGREDIENT LIST AND NUTRITION FACTS LABEL.  This is easier said that done, however, due to the savvy ways food companies are allowed to market to consumers (a majority of them CHILDREN), the concept of “reading labels” isn’t enough anymore (not to mention deciphering what nutrition labels actually mean can be an art in itself…stay tuned next week for a lesson in that).  Many of these labels found dazzled across food packaging in bold, attractive fonts and colors are misleading and at times downright false pieces of health claims aimed to get you to buy a product rather than look out for your health and well-being.  I cringe many times when I shop in food stores and see the mass of unhealthy foods targeted at shoppers in strategic places on shelves (and yes, even the healthy stores like Whole Foods have products that may seem healthy, but aren’t, such a sugar-laden snacks boasting a “gluten free” designation).  With that, here are some of my top-offenders of nutrition claims to watch out for and why.  One of the easiest ways to avoid getting sucked into the food marketing manipulation vortex is to shop the perimeter aisles in food stores – the aisles that contain fresh produce, fresh meats (if you eat them), fresh dairy (if you aren’t vegan), and less-processed foods.  The center aisles tend to be traps of processed foods and less-healthy choices.

Marion Nestle (nutrition superwoman and one of my idols) puts it best from her book “What to Eat”:

“The foods that sell best and bring in the most profits are not necessarily the ones that are best for your health, and the conflict between health and business goals is at the root of public confusion about food choices.  At the supermarket, you exercise freedom of choice and personal responsibility every time you put an item in your shopping cart, but massive efforts have gone into making it more convenient and desirable for you to choose some products rather than others.”

The other unfortunate thing you need to realize is that the USDA and FDA are heavily influenced by food industry financing, lobbying, and lawsuit intimidation (heavens forbid the USDA say that eating too much red meat is unhealthy!  The beef industry has already been all over that, leaving the USDA backing down with shaking knees).  Many people ask me, “Well, the FDA or USDA wouldn’t allow something super unhealthy be put on the shelves, so it can’t be that bad for me, right?”  I hate to break it to you, but yes…. Yes, it most certainly can (and in most cases is).  No fear – empower yourself with the knowledge to shop smart and vote with your fork.  The more people who won’t buy into these false claims will eventually shift the market and hopefully change standards.  Already, the tables have turned with individuals and proactive groups filing lawsuits against food companies (and even the USDA) for misleading nutrition marketing and labelling….and some are even winning.


  1.  One of my greatest concerns is how sugar-laden and processed foods are being marketed as boosting some sort of health function (like digestion, for example).  Case in point, here are some of the worst offenders:
  • Yogurts and/or frozen yogurt & ice creams boasting properties like “Probiotics” or “Immune Boosting” (examples – Activia, Danimals, GoGurts, Yoplait…).  In all honesty, the only yogurt products I think are worthwhile are PLAIN-styled yogurts with NO added flavors, sugars, artificial sweeteners, thickening agents, etc.  Have you read the labels of some of the false health-claim yogurts?  If they don’t have sugar contents looming close to the 20g a serving mark, they are full of artificial sweeteners and ingredients…. Nothing healthy about that, especially for kids.  Probiotics?  Healthy probiotics are plentiful in yogurt products like plain kefir, plain yogurt, and plain Greek yogurt.  If you want flavor, add fresh or frozen fruit; to sweeten, add something like stevia.  When I was a teacher, I was aghast when I would see kids suck down two or three GoGurts that were full of sugar and food coloring.  You can make your own frozen versions for dessert by adding fresh fruits or even nuts (like almonds) or granola and putting in the freezer. If you want healthy gut bacteria and an immune system, getting your probiotics from sugar and chemical-laden sources will not do it.
  • Cereals like sugary children’s selections that claim to have fiber and whole grains – in most cases, the “fiber” is some isolated processed form of fiber that could actually irritate the bowels and digestion system rather than help it.  In fact, these are not just limited to children’s selections.  I have seen these claims on pretty much any General Mills, Kellogs, General Foods, and Post cereals (and the list doesn’t end there).  Remember – the goals of these companies is to SELL and MAKE MONEY.  In order to do that, they need to make their products appealing….so in order to do that, they claim something to want you to buy it.  If you want genuine healthy, unprocessed fiber, eat some organic oatmeal, granola, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds…you get the idea.  Again, read the ingredients list on these cereals and I bet you will be shocked to see more words that you cannot pronounce than you can.  These processed, GMO-laden ingredients will give you calories and fat (if it’s not a fat-free choice), but not healthy energy your body could really utilize.
  1. FAT FREE – This health claim was HUGE starting in the 1990s when the food industry in conjunction with the USDA put the U.S. in a frenzy that saturated and trans-fats were evil (which I agree on about trans-fats…and saturated fats should be limited) and that in order to lose weight, everything had to be fat free.  If anything could be further from the truth, it would be this.  Your body actually needs healthy fats, as in the form of mono and poly unsaturated fats, to help burn fat.  Yes, you heard me right.  Not to mention, when food is processed to have fat taken out, other things (namely sugar, artificial ingredients, and fillers) need to be added to replace fiber and texture.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds too FrankenFood-like to me.  In fact, some of the highest sugar-filled foods and/or highest calorie-containing foods are fat free foods.  My advice?  Stay away from foods that tout being fat free; instead, read the nutrition label and make your choices for healthy fat-intake moderation from there (don’t forget that fat-soluble vitamins A,D,E, and K, in addition to some minerals are absorbed in the body through fats).
  2. SUGAR FREE, NO ADDED SUGAR, OR REDUCED SUGAR – Watching sugar intake is imperative – I agree.  However, eating something that’s made with artificial sweeteners is in my opinion, a huge setback for your health.  Food companies will market foods like this to diabetics or those who are carb-conscious.  However, again, read the nutrition label and ingredient list just to make sure what’s going on for real in the sugar department.  To replace taste, something else is usually added to make up for what’s lost.  Sometimes you will get legitimate items like Trader Joe’s organic fruit preserves that don’t have added sugars (which is a good thing considering the fruit used has enough of its own sugar!) or other ingredients you should be leery about.  With children’s products like juices, snacks, etc., food manufacturers think this will entice parents to buy more of a product that claims to have less sugar “added” – when the actual amount present in the product already is high enough (and should be avoided).
  3. GLUTEN FREE – I understand many individuals are gluten sensitive or intolerant (Celiac disease sufferers) and need to watch their food choices, as gluten seems to be present in everything today from health care products to most items in your cupboard.  However, over the past several years, going “gluten free” has become sort of a diet craze for some people, where they think that if they eliminate gluten or say they are going “gluten free” that they are doing something miraculous for their health or diets (and I’m not trying to make a jab at anyone who has done this).  My concern with the gluten free craze is that I feel it’s been perpetuated by food companies more – they bring attention to the issue by advertising that their food is gluten free and when consumers see that enough over time, they will begin to assume through human nature that gluten is something bad like trans fats and should be avoided.  While I agree gluten causes sensitivity in many people (and obviously needs to be avoided 100% by those with Celiac disease), many people don’t know enough about going “gluten free” before seeking out gluten-free products with health claims on them.  Going 100% gluten free is actually a lifestyle change, as gluten is present in so many products and is disguised under numerous ingredient names (and can also be contaminated on processing and packaging machinery).  The wheat protein gluten that is found in all wheat, barley, and rye products has invaded our food supply – and my main concern is that most of the sensitivity to it I believe is from the GMO-properties of the gluten products themselves.  With that said… many of these gluten free products that have claims on them are many times made with large amounts of fats and sugars and other added ingredients I would advise anyone to stay away from.  Again – read your ingredient lists.  Don’t just think something is healthy because it says gluten free.  Being gluten free for many families is a dedicated lifestyle shift that requires careful ingredient hunting to make sure it will not cause a reaction in those who are affected.
  4. CHOLESTEROL FREE – Cholesterol is only found in animal products (like meat, dairy, eggs, and butter), as it’s produced by the liver.  I crack up every time I see something that is plant-based (like olive oil) touting “Cholesterol free!”  OK – I understand not everyone knows cholesterol is only found in animal products, but the food company making that claim is trying to market their product as being better or healthier when in many cases, it may not be (I’m not saying olive oil is unhealthy, but again, moderation is key).  Additionally, cholesterol free doesn’t mean, literally, no cholesterol – cholesterol-free products must contain less than 2 mg per serving while low-cholesterol products contain 20 mg or less per serving. Foods that say reduced or less cholesterol need to have at least 25% less than comparable products. The American Heart Association recommends people consume less than 300 mg of cholesterol daily, which is important, as too high intakes can lead to heart disease and inflammation problems.  Yet our bodies require some cholesterol to function (especially the brain).  Just beware to read the ingredient list of products that claim to be cholesterol free to make sure they don’t have other harmful things like hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (which are made out of plant oils).
  5. THE ORGANIC CLAIM – While I 100% promote buying organic produce, meats, dairy, and whole grains…please be aware of foods, especially prepared and “snack-type” foods that boast being organic.  Just because they are organic does NOT mean that they cannot be full of sugars, fats, and calories.  Unfortunately, so many people associate the label “organic” with automatically being healthy.  I mean, technically Oreos could be made organic…but that doesn’t mean they are healthy.  I really caution parents with organic yogurts for kids and organic food “pouches” for babies and toddlers that while they may be organic, giving your child something that contains between 15-20+ grams of sugar in a serving is NOT healthy.
  6. THE “ALL NATURAL” CLAIM – I see this one A LOT.  You’ll see “all natural” ice cream.  You’ll see “all natural” potato chips.  MMmmmmmm…. ALL NATURAL!!  Yea, if only that meant “all good for you” too, which in most cases, it does not.  Meat distributors are plastering this claim leading consumers to believe that if they buy “all natural” meat, it must be great, right?  Well, in fact, there really is no true definition to “all natural.”  While we want to have this enchanted envision that “all natural” would exemplify foods that are pure and not processed in any way, that is often not the case at all.  Since the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t define what “all natural” means, food makers won’t get in trouble as long as so-labeled “all natural” food doesn’t contain added colors, artificial flavors, or “synthetic substances.”  Sounds reassuring, right?  Well…like anything with the USDA and FDA, there’s always room for interpretation.  Even if a food is labelled “natural” it can still contain preservatives (which in many cases can be huge amounts of sodium, as is used in meats) and even some products will have high fructose corn syrup (but you know, since high fructose corn syrup comes from corn, that’s “natural”).  My take?  While some products may really be a healthier choice if it claims to be “all natural” (such as unflavored or sweetened oatmeal) – I would exercise extreme caution and read the ingredient list.  If there is anything added, it’s not “all natural.”
  7. NO TRANS-FATS – This is one of my biggest pet peeves with not only the food industry, but the FDA to allow downright LYING to occur on food labels regarding trans-fats.  Most of us know trans fats are horrible for our health and should be avoided at all times.  The ideal daily dietary intake is zero.  Yet products that claim “no trans fat” are allowed, per the FDA, to contain less than 0.5 grams per serving.  So let’s say you eat a bag of crackers that claim to be “trans fat free”…but you read the ingredient list and pick up on “partially hydrogenated oil”…which is TRANS FAT.  So how could it be trans fat free?  Well, next, check the serving size.  I bet the bag of crackers is probably 2 or 2.5 servings (in most cases, definitely over 1).  The amount of trans-fat for one serving would have to be below 0.5 g…but if the bag is actually 2.5 servings, you’re eating at least 1.5 grams of trans fat… when the label says ZERO TRANS FAT!  Um, what’s wrong with this picture?!? You have to realize that in most cases, if a product says 0 trans fat on it, it isn’t actually at zero.  You can avoid this trap by READING INGREDIENT LISTS AND NUTRITION LABELS… Check for words on the ingredient list such as hydrogenated oils, partially hydrogenated oils, and shortening, which mean trans fat is still present.
  8. BEWARE OF SERVING SIZE! The food package itself can be very misleading.  You look at a bottle of delicious organic iced tea and think that it’s a healthy choice.  Just to be sure, you check the back to scan for calorie and sugar count.  90 calories and 12 grams of sugar….doesn’t seem bad at all for a treat.  But wait… you notice something else on the nutrition label – that bottle is actually 2.5 servings… so now you can multiply the 90 by 2.5 and 12 grams of sugar by 2.5 and what you thought was a healthy treat is now turning out to be a sad realization of high calories and sugar content.  Many times, it’s so easy to think that one container of something is one serving size… when in reality, it’s not.  Food companies do this (even organic ones!) to catch the eye of someone quickly glancing at the nutrition label, hoping that they’ll assume the entire container or package (if it seems like an individual serving) is actually one serving… when in reality, it’s multiple servings.  Paying attention to this detail can help save lots of unnecessary calories, fat, and sugar from being eaten by mistake.


While this list is nowhere near as comprehensive as I could get in the complex world of misleading claims on labels and marketing tactics of food companies, I hope it raises enough awareness to help you carefully navigate through your way of becoming an educated and empowered healthy consumer.  Stay tuned next week for a lesson (or refresher for some of you) on deciphering nutrition labels.

Megan Monday articles are written by Megan Kalocinski, a Certified Holistic Health and Nutrition Coach and Owner/Founder of Empower Health & Nutrition Coaching of Exponential Health and Wellness, LLC:


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