Food Sleuth: How to Read Front-of-Package Labels

Do you ever find yourself wondering how healthy certain items at the grocery store really are? When you see bright wording on the package like “cholesterol-free” or “natural,” those foods can seem pretty enticing in terms of health benefits. There is a lot more to it than just what those labels say.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the regulation of food labeling. This includes the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list, but also that eye-catching, carefully designed front-of-package promotion that draws your attention so that the product will find its way into your shopping cart more easily than others. While the FDA requires that these claims must be true, sharp marketing minds may try to trick you into making an uninformed choice.

Front-of-package labeling, while true, may not reflect the most important aspects of the nutrition of the product. The claims may make the food sound more nutritious than it is, or may distract you from less-than-shining aspects of the product. Here are some examples that may trip you up:

  1. High, low, reduced, good source, free, etc. (i.e., high fiber, low sodium, reduced fat) – these claims must meet specific government definitions related to the amount of the nutrient in question. However, these levels are relative to comparable products. Check out the Nutrition Facts label and compare it to similar products to find out where it really stands.
  2. Cholesterol-free – watch out for this on foods that only contain plants. Plants don’t have cholesterol in them anyway, so even though it is true, this claim may be used to distract from less-desirable aspects of a food (for example, mixed nuts that have excessive amounts of salt added).
  3. Natural and organic – ‘natural’ means the product does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients, while ‘organic’ refers to the methods used to grow or produce the food. These are often equated with ‘healthy,’ a term that is defined by the FDA using criteria that limits fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, as well as sets minimum amounts for vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients. While products may be ‘natural’ or ‘organic,’ they may not be ‘healthy.’
  4. Made with Whole Grain – this claim can be made even if all the grain in the product isn’t whole grain; the whole grain may only comprise a small percentage of the total grain. To reap the full benefit of whole grains, look for 100% Whole Grain products and check the ingredients list to make sure whole grain is one of the first ingredients.

Check out this video from Carlene Thomas, RD, for a great example of how to avoid the pitfalls of front-of-label marketing:

When it comes to front-of-label packaging, remember that the food producer has an entire marketing department whose job is to get you to buy their product. They will do everything they can to convince you their product is great so you don’t question it. But you’re not defenseless – if the front-of-package labeling is the devil on one shoulder, the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredient list are the angels on the other shoulder. These sources of obligatory honesty will tell you the truth about the foods you’re buying, so use them to your advantage to make the healthiest choices for yourself.

Have you ever been tricked by front-of-package labeling? Share your stories and what you found out in the comments!



U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food label helps consumers make healthier choices. Published October 14, 2014. Accessed March 15, 2015.


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