As you walk down one of 11 aisles in your grocery store and try to decide which cereal to buy for your 7-year-old, several phrases jump out at you: Made with whole grains! Good source of fiber! Organic! Natural! No artificial dyes!
These front-of-package labels are meant to catch your eye, and the health claims urge you to drop the box in your cart. Food companies know shoppers are busy, and that the overabundance of food options is overwhelming, especially when you’re in a hurry.
The problem is, not all health claims on food packages should be valued equally. In fact, many of these claims are poorly defined, unregulated, or simply misleading. While some terms are tightly enforced by the FDA, others are not.
For example, here are four common, front-of-package phrases that mean next to nothing.
It’s the ultimate buzzword on packages. It feels good and safe to eat food that claims to be “real” food, but the problem with “natural” is that it has no official definition by the FDA or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The use of “natural” on front-of-package labels has caused such confusion that attempts to define and regulate the term are now in motion. However, for the time being, it’s best to just ignore the word altogether.
2. Anything that starts with “Made with…”
Made with real fruit. Made with whole grains. Made with real cheese. Etc.
Like “natural,” these phrases falsely reassure you that you’re buying “real” food instead of an edible science project. But don’t be fooled: Just because a recipe started with a raw, wholesome ingredient doesn’t mean the final product has any resemblance—in taste or nutrition.
For example, you’ve likely seen cereal that claims to be “made with whole grains.” One version of a Lucky Charms box vows to be “made with 100% whole-grain oats,” and while whole grain oats are indeed the first ingredient, the second is sugar. There’s a big difference between oatmeal and Lucky Charms, which contain 10 grams of sugar per serving.
But that’s not all: Corn syrup is the fourth ingredient; if the two sources of sugar were combined, they would likely be the first ingredient (ingredients are listed in order by weight). Using multiple sources of sugar is a common industry tactic that allows the whole grain to be listed first—instead of sugar. In other words, the "made with whole grains" phrase is an industry tactic to make a sugary product appear wholesome.
All those labels on eggs and meat can sound pretty endearing and make you feel good about buying them, but not all the claims are valid. For example, “cage-free” is only regulated a fraction of the time.
The USDA regulates some of these, and you can tell which ones have been regulated by the presence of the USDA grademark. This means the USDA visited the egg-producing facility at least twice a year to verify the hen conditions.
That said, even with the official “cage-free” designation, this doesn’t mean the hens are calmly pecking around outside. All it means is they are not contained to a tiny cage.
If the egg carton says “cage-free” but doesn’t contain the USDA grademark, that means you can’t really be sure about the hen conditions unless you visit the facility for yourself.
4. “A good source of fiber”
Most things that are good sources of fiber (fruits, veggies, beans, and grains) don’t come in packages, and if they do, they know they don’t need to brag about their healthfulness. Everyone already knows that canned beans contain fiber, so Bush’s and Goya don’t waste their time telling you that on the label.
When a product claims to be “a good source of fiber” on the front of the package, that often (but not always) means that fiber was added in during processing. Fiber-enriched foods do not seem to be as beneficial to the body as foods naturally high in fiber, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Knowing which claims are meaningless is a step in the right direction, but your best bet is to ignore health claims on the front of the box altogether. Instead, flip to the back and read the ingredients and nutrition facts. (Here are tips to read the new-and-improved nutrition label.)
Better yet? Buy fresh, whole ingredients whenever possible. Some of the healthiest foods don’t come in a box at all, and don’t need to brag about their “realness.” (But FYI, here are the processed foods that are actually good for you.)