tricky health claims on food packaging
When you see any of these five terms on a package you can bet the food inside inside is anything but healthy.

meaningless health claims

Imagine this. You’re pushing your cart down the aisles of your local grocery store, dutifully checking off the items on your shopping list. It’s Spring time, you’re starting to think about summer vacations, trips to the neighborhood pool, warmer weather…swim suits.

So you decide you’re going to eat a little healthier and have in mind a few products you’ve recently seen advertised on TV or in some fashion magazine. As you choose what to add to your cart you’re feeling good about only selecting products that are ‘all natural,’ or ‘made with whole grains,’ along with something out of the dairy section that says it’s ‘light,’ ooh, and these little snacks over here are in ‘100 calorie’ packs, how nice.

You’ve done well and you feel good about yourself. And you should. You’ve believed the people we’ve entrusted with the sacred duty of feeding our country. It’s right on the front of the box, so it must be true, right?

The thing is, you’ve been tricked. You’ve been duped by those people into thinking those foods are healthy when in fact they are not. “But it’s says so on the box. It’s all in big, bold letters. This one even has a stamp of approval from the American Heart Association. You’re saying it’s not true?”

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. You’ve been tricked by the food industry’s fancy marketers whose respectability pales in comparison to the cliché slimy used car salesman.

The shame is on them. You shouldn’t feel bad. We should be able to trust those claims and the agencies that allow them. Sadly, we can’t.

Unfortunately because of the state of our American diet, shopping in the grocery store requires a bit of detective work. You have to approach the weekly shopping trip with your antenna up and alert systems turned on. But it’s not all that complicated. Those same messages on the front of the box are actually telling us exactly what we need to know…”Don’t buy me.”

When you see any of these five terms on a package you can bet the food inside inside is anything but healthy.

Natural: The problem with this innocent sounding claim is that it’s completely meaningless. It has no standard legal or nutritional definition and appears on millions of packages of crap food. “Natural” junk can kill you all the same.

100 Calories: Controlling your portion sizes is a great idea. But 100 calories of crap is still crap. Crackers, chips, cookies, and other fake food packages come in these little packs with messaging that makes you think what’s inside is healthy. It’s not. More honest would be “100 empty calories” because it’s a serving of nothing but junk food with no nutritional benefit.

Light: Take a look at that ‘light’ yogurt. Turn it around and look at the nutrition panel. 24 grams of sugar. Then look at the ingredient list. It’s not even sugar from sugar cane. That’s heavy. Does 24 grams of sugar – 5 teaspoons! – sound healthy? It’s not light, that’s for sure.

One of the most brutally honest books on food is called ‘Skinny Bitch.’ It’s crass, but very to the point. One of the best lines in it says “whenever you see the words fat-free or low-fat, think of the words ‘chemical shit storm.'” The word ‘light’ belongs in that quote as well. When you remove fat, something has to be added back to make the food taste good. In the processed food world that simply means chemicals, or at least sugar.

Made With: Do you know how much of an ingredient has to be in a product for the package to claim “made with?” One percent. Those claims of “Made with _______” (fill in the blank) doesn’t mean a thing on the packages of junk sugar cereal or other processed foods. Claiming ‘made with’ on the front of a box is completely meaningless and typically highlights the single ingredient in a list of 20 that the manufacturer isn’t ashamed of.

Whole Grains: This one goes right along with ‘made with.’ Only trace amounts of a whole grain are necessary for this label to be used on the front of a package. Unless you see “100% whole grains” you can assume the bulk of the grains are refined.

What To Do?

Remember, the job of food manufacturers is to sell you food, not to keep you healthy. They answer to shareholders, not you. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it simply means the burden is on you to not be the sucker who got taken on the used car lot.

How? Read the ingredient list! Say it with me. “Read the ingredient list.” This is the source of all you really need to know about a product. We’ll also refer to the nutrition labe at times to determine how much sugar is in a product (yes, you have to be careful of sugar content in natural products with natural sweeteners too), but other than that, we base our decisions on the ingredient list.

If the ingredient list is obscenely long or confusing, it’s not worth buying. Choose products with ingredients you can pronounce and that you’d find in your kitchen cupboard. If you’re not sure about an ingredient, put the product back or look it up on your smartphone to learn about it.

In a perfect world, or if you’re willing to be super diligent, you wouldn’t buy any products that come in a package. The healthiest options of course are the single ingredient items you find in the produce and bulk sections.

If you can avoid any packaged items, more power to you. Until then, watch out for these five marketing claims since they’re usually a sign that the food manufacturer has something to hide. Remember, the front of the package is there to entice you to buy. The ingredient list is there to help you decide whether that product belongs in your cart or the garbage can.

photo credit: Brother O’Mara cc

4 thoughts on “Five “Health” Claims on Food that Should Make You Mad

  1. The vagueness with which advertisers make food health claims can be so irritating!


    “May promote weight loss!”

    “Can be used to lower cholesterol (*with a healthy diet and exercise).”

    I’d say why bother – except for the fact that it obviously works! I used to be sucked in by all those claims!

    1. You’re exactly right – it works. And we’ve all fallen for it at some point in our lives. Guilty as charged! We really do have to put on our truth detectors at the grocery store and go beyond what the front of the package says.

  2. My favorite is when poultry producers advertise their animals eat a 100% vegetarian diet. Chickens are not meant to be vegetarians. They forage and scratch and eat bugs and worms.

    1. Agreed!! That one always makes me chuckle. All that means is that the chicken was fed practically the same diet as every other industrial chicken on the planet. It’s completely meaningless, and obviously not good for the chickens that really just want some delicious bugs!

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