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  • Writer's pictureSusie Csorsz Brown

Fact versus Fiction: Nutrition Label lingo #2

Last post, I discussed the different parts of the nutrition label that is now included as part of the packaging on most processed foods. This time, we’re going to look at other measures manufacturers might enlist in order to entice you to buy their product.

First, know that no food is produced to help you achieve any wellness goals: not to lose weight, improve your blood cholesterol profile or to better maintain your blood sugar. Manufacturers create their food products solely to sell more products. They will arrange and rearrange ingredients to entice you. They will manipulate the packaging so as to lure you in. They will sell you the idea that they care about your cholesterol intake, your gluten tolerance, and whether or not you like sugar, but, sadly, they do not actually care. What they care about is their bottom line; the more products they sell, the more money they make. That is the very purpose of their business. Sounds kind of dark, I know, but thems the facts.

Knowing all that, and armed with what you already know about nutrition labels that

they slap on the side of the packaging, let’s look at some of the tricks of the trade, so you can be the smartest food consumer possible. Much like Alice in Wonderland, wandering around the grocery store can feel a little bit like there are Drink me! and Eat me! labels on every bottle and box.

Fact of the matter is, you can do a LOT for your family’s nutrition by paying attention to what you are buying and feeding your family. Let me repeat: the best products are those that are minimally processed, and, best, don’t have a nutrition label at all. Fresh produce, whole grains, and things like beans and pulses are your best bet. Meats that are raised ethically, and minimally processed are your best bet. Cooking at home is your best bet. I know, in the real world, we rely on processed foods and restaurant cooking perhaps more than we’d like. So making best food choices is what you can do to improve and maintain your and your family’s nutritional wellness.

Beyond the actual nutrition label, there are other things that the food manufacturers like to put on their packaging that will entice you to purchase their product.

Colors and packaging:

Have you ever noticed how brightly colored some food packages are, and others, decorated with calm and muted colors?? Make no mistake, there is a reason for every color on that label. Colors used are either to excite you or to calm you, depending on what the manufacturers are hoping for; the colors used make you notice the products, and make their box stand out from all of the rest. Typically, foods that are geared toward younger eaters are those that are brightly colored, often with colorful cartoon spokespeople/animals. Foods with muted or more natural colors are used on boxes of ‘healthier’ options. The color green is often slapped on foods claiming to be a ‘healthier’ option, but in actuality are the very same product, just wrapped in different colors.

Some color-food associations that are common in our human brain:

  • Green: organic, natural, vegetarian, eco-friendly

  • Blue: calm, fresh, associated with the Mediterranean diet

  • Red: strong, urgent, associated with higher sales

  • Yellow: appetite stimulant, associated with good mood

  • Black and gold: luxury

Beyond colors, manufacturers also manipulate your impressions of a food by using specific packaging shapes and colors. Tall, slim containers for ‘skinny’ foods, concave or curvy bottles for a ‘healthier’ option. Are they really healthier? Maybe. Studies also show that we interpret foods wrapped in brown-colored packaging to be healthier (even if it isn’t), and foods in transparent packaging to be of higher quality.

They might also include imagery that makes you think of whole grains or healthier options. You might see images of fields or wheat stalks on crackers claiming to be healthy but actually made of only refined flour; pictures of fruits and veggies on snack puffs; or a variety of fruits on a bottle of ‘tropical’ fruit juice that contains white grape juice and other fruit flavorings.


Have you ever noticed how many claims there are on your favorite food packaging? “Light’, ‘multigrain’, ‘natural’, ‘lowfat’ … none of these claims actually have any defined value, and manufacturers can use them however they please. In fact, some foods might even claim different health values, depending on what side of the box they put it. Those claims that are designed to catch your eye, and make you reach for your wallet will be on the front; the ones that will entice the younger audience will be on the back, as they are more likely to be the ones reading the back of the box.

The food label might also claim qualities like ‘high-protein’ but really only achieve that when served ‘as suggested’ with milk (which, of course, offers plenty of protein). Others may suggest ‘lightly salted’ when the Nutrition label will indicate how high the actual sodium content really is. There are some rules and regulations as to what a food label can and cannot claim in regards to health claims, but not all of the words regularly seen on the label are related to health claims.. Suffice it to say, if the claim falls into particular health categories, and can be supported by scientific evidence AND are considered to be well understood by the majority of consumers, it may be added to the label.

Food manufacturers know what words catch the eye and interest of the potential consumer, and they will frequently display those key words on the top and front of their package, in an eye-catching color. Words like ‘gluten-free,’ ‘organic,’ ‘whole grain,’ ‘low-fat,’ ‘natural,’ ‘cholesterol-free,’ and ‘vegetable…’ are often prominently displayed and only when you read the nutrition label will you be able to determine the validity of that statement. Other than the label ‘organic’, there are no rules or regulations that determine what any of those claims HAVE to mean, so it is up to us as savvy shoppers to determine if it is indeed true. And, as a note on organics, just because something is organic does NOT mean it is automatically healthy.

Other words manufacturers know you like and might make you opt for their product over a similar one: fresh, farm fresh, healthy, GMO-free, ‘100 calories’ or snack packs, naturally sweetened, No sugar or reduced sugar, and ‘with vitamins and minerals’, amongst others. If you see these on the front of the package, be sure to turn that bag/box over and read what else is in there … or not in there, as the case may be.

If you remember from the Nutrition label article, some foods may be a good source of one nutrient, say omega fatty acids, but then also be very high in sugar. Manufacturers will blaze that ‘high in omega fatty acid’ claim bright and clear on the front of the package, and hope that you won’t turn the box over and see for yourself about the high sugars. ‘No fat’ items are very often loaded with sugar and/or salt, too. Watch those label traps!

Additionally, manufacturers will have many different competing versions of the same product – low-fat, regular, low-sodium, low sugar – all displayed together. When we see a larger selection, it actually makes us want to buy more; humans like to have a wide variety of options, and being able to choose from more will actually make us take home multiples of an item, in different flavors.

A note on fortification: when a food product, say Corn Flakes, is ‘fortified’ that means that the manufacturer has added synthetic compounds to the processed food to make it appear healthier by improving its nutrition profile. In many cases, these compounds are sprayed on (like for cereals) or, in some cases, mixed into the food itself. Corn by itself is never going to be a ‘good source of 6 B vitamins and calcium;’ therefore, fortification will help make the food seem more appealing, and, hopefully, entice you to buy it. At worst, fortification can mask unhealthy nutrition qualities like high sugar or trans fats; at best, the product will be minimally ‘fine.’ The best way to know if the nutrients in the food are naturally occurring (best option), and in a preferred quantity is to read the label. Remember: the ingredients are listed in the order of the greatest amount used in the product, to the least. If sugar in any form is in the top three, the product is not as healthy as you might think, and the presence of synthetic vitamins should not ever be a reason to purchase it.

A final note: if you or a family member have any food-related allergies or sensitivities, it is a good idea to be familiar with what substitutions might be in store in foods that have these health claims. For example, foods that are reformulated to be gluten-free might be reconstructed using nut (especially almond) or legume flours which may cause different issues. Or they may replace the regular flours with tapioca or potato starch, which offers little fiber or other nutritive value.

Ingredient list:

Manufacturers will also use different words for different ingredients, to ‘hide’ the product they think you might not want to see. A product can be ‘low-sugar’ and still include different types of sugar like malt or disaccharides, maltodextrin or corn syrup. These products are definitely sugar, but can hide in plain sight if you don’t know what you should be looking for.

Avoid foods with ingredient lists with long and complicated words or those that are unnecessarily long. Remember that the ingredient list is in order of the ingredient of the greatest amount to the least; if the first few ingredients are not to your liking, then leave the food on the shelf!

Some foods are, in our minds, healthy. Granola bars are healthy, right? In actuality, the ingredient lists of granola bars very often too-closely resemble those of candy bars; just because you THINK something should be healthy does not necessarily mean it is! Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely good options in the granola bar section, but you have to look carefully at what is and is not added; many of these types of bars are very high in sugar and processed food products; is that really what you want your kids to be eating for breakfast or for their snack break? Look for options that have nuts, dried fruit and little else; these are your best bet.

Advertising and Package placement:

Manufacturers actually pay extra to have their product placed at prime locations: generally, at eye level for the average adult, and not grouped off away from similar products (e.g. like many ‘organic’ or ‘imported foods’ might be). Best place for placement? Right around the fruit and veggie section. Prime real estate for placement is also at the check-out area or on the ends of the aisles where shoppers may slow and spot items they would not normally consider. In fact, store managers will ‘bury’ the products they know you will NEED to buy (e.g. laundry soap, toilet paper, etc) behind items they WANT you to buy (e.g. potato chips, cereals, candy, soda).

Smart shoppers already know the best places for whole foods: on the perimeter. Manufacturers are trying to get a foot-hold in these areas, too. This is why you might see things like a concocted fruit dip amongst the apple displays, or different chips near the tomatoes. Stores will also place items that are appealing to kids at their eye-level or next time items they would be most interested in (e.g. sodas next to the lunch meats, or sugary jam near the peanut butter).

Don’t think you, the food shopper, are the only target for these product placement manipulations. Food manufacturers also target our kids through product placement on their magazines or favorite television shows, or will use celebrity or spokes-characters to endear the items to the kids. Contests, games and collectibles are other ways items are marketed directly to kids.

Any time you or your kids are on the internet, you will find yourself at the mercy of targeting advertising. If you express interest in any item – shopping at Amazon, suggested in the article you just read, or in the eshop you frequent – you will find that product ‘haunting’ you through targeting advertising. Manufacturers use these ads to sell you items related to what you are interested in, or are marketed by the individuals you are interested in. Creepy, sure, but effective. Ads that target kids – through their television programs, through their social media, through the movies geared towards kids – are sneaky, and they are also very very effective at getting those kids to start nagging you to buy that product.

Making smart food buying decisions is complicated. It’s a process made even more complicated by the very packaging the food is in, and by the messages we get about those foods. Learning about the tricks food manufacturers might use to entice you to buy their products will help you to be a smarter shopper; teach these tricks to your family, too, so you can all work together to eat well, and to avoid falling into the Buy-me! traps laid out for you.

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