The ingredient label is the most important label on any product. That's where you'll find the truth about what's inside. However, the food industry knows most people don't read ingredient labels and instead are looking at the front of the packaging to see what they're buying.
Here are some common misleading labels you'll find on food products and what these labels truly mean:
"All-Natural," "100% Natural" or "Natural"
There's no clear definition for what natural means on a label, so there is room for interpretation by food companies. This wording indicates that the product doesn't contain added colors or artificial ingredients.1 However, this label absolutely does not mean that a product is organic, non-GMO, pesticide-free, preservative-free, humane or made with real food. Many products say they are "100% Natural," even though they are full of unnecessary ingredients.
"Fortified" or "Enriched"
These words usually indicate an item is heavily processed. Both of these terms mean that nutrients have been added back into the product because its ingredients have been so overly processed they've been stripped of nutritional value. For example, flour is refined and can be treated with dozens of different chemicals—including bleach—before it ends up on store shelves. This industrial processing destroys nutrients, so manufacturers will add them back in, and often those are isolated and from synthetic sources.
Synthetic nutrients are not always utilized as well by the body as the nutrients found naturally in whole foods. It's better to choose foods that still contain their natural nutrients, rather than having been processed to the degree that they need to be "fortified" or "enriched."
This sounds healthy, but just means a food is made with multiple different types of grains.2 This does not mean that these grains are whole and unrefined. Rather, these grains may be refined and therefore stripped of their nutrients and healthy fiber.
"Made with Olive Oil" (or any other healthy ingredient)
Just because a product says on the front that it is "made with" something healthy doesn't mean that the rest of the ingredients are healthy too. A good example of this is Best Foods Mayonnaise Dressing with Olive Oil. You'd think it's made with just healthy olive oil, but a quick scan of the ingredient list will show you that it's actually made with more soybean oil than olive oil.
"No Sugar Added" or "Sugar-Free"
How can a sugar-free product still taste sweet? By the use of fake sweeteners made in a lab, that's how. Many products labeled "sugar-free" contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose, which I would suggest avoiding.
"Fat-Free" or "Low-Fat"
This label is very misleading, as "fat-free" and "low-fat" products often contain more additives and more sugar than their original versions. This clearly doesn't make them more healthful. These products are packed with extra sweeteners along with added fillers and thickeners to replace the fat that was removed. This label also does not tell us anything about the quality of the ingredients or what was added to maintain the flavor after the fat was removed.
"Made with Real Fruit"
While the claim "made with real fruit" might lead you to imagine an abundant basket full of oranges, grapes and strawberries, products with this label often contain very little fruit at all. Food companies aren't required to label the percentage of actual fruit in a product, and so it might contain just one small cherry. This also goes for products that say they are made with "100% juice."
"High in Protein"
Any product that boasts about how much protein it contains is often fortified with extra protein in the form of soy protein isolate or whey protein isolate, both of which are heavily processed forms of protein. Although you can take virtually any super-unhealthy product out there and add some protein powder to it, this does not magically transform it into a health food. Many protein-fortified products are filled with refined sugar, fake flavors and synthetic preservatives.
"Good Source of Fiber"
Food manufacturers will frequently add fiber additives to processed products full of white flour and sugar to make them seem healthier. Often, they'll include the additive cellulose to artificially pump up the fiber content. This additive is typically derived from wood, as cellulose is much cheaper to obtain from wood than fruits and vegetables, and it's manipulated in a laboratory to form different structures (liquid, powder, etc.) depending upon the food product in which it's used.
Cellulose may be a cheap way to boost the fiber content on food labels, but it isn't as healthful as the fiber you get from eating whole grains or produce. Research links the additive cellulose to increased risk of weight gain, inflammation and digestive problems3 —which is quite the opposite result that you'd expect from eating fiber-rich foods. It's best to get your fiber from whole grains, fruits and veggies, instead.
How to shop for the healthiest food
The most important thing to remember when grocery shopping is that most of the food you buy should be just one ingredient. That means you should spend the vast majority of your time in the produce section, picking up fresh and flavorful fruits and vegetables, and then find your way into the center of the store to stock your pantry with all the ingredients that you'll need to cook healthy meals on the fly, such as quinoa, rice, olive oil, beans, etc.
Once your pantry is stocked and you've got your fresh produce, dairy and meats for the week, you will have the makings for success in the kitchen.
The Ultimate "No-No" List
These are the most important ingredients to avoid, as they're associated with negative health issues.
- Acesulfame potassium
- Artificial flavors
- Aspartame (NutraSweet)
- Autolyzed yeast extract
- BHA and BHT
- Bleached flour
- Blue 1
- Calcium peroxide
- Calcium propionate
- Caramel color
- Corn syrup
- Cottonseed oil
- Enriched flour
- Fructose or fructose syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Hydrolyzed proteins
- Monoglycerides and diglycerides
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Natural flavors
- Potassium benzoate
- Partially hydrogenated oils
- Propyl gallate
- Red 3
- Red 40
- Sodium benzoate
- Sodium nitrate
- Sodium nitrite
- Sodium phosphate
- Soybean oil
- Soy protein isolate
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Synthetic vitamins
- Titanium dioxide
- Yeast extract
- Yellow 5
- Yellow 6
Adapted from Food Babe Kitchen: More than 100 Delicious, Real Food Recipes to Change Your Body and Your Life by Vani Hari (Hay House, 2020)