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Why Misleading Food Labels Are So Prevalent and How You Can Avoid Them

by Katie Melville, Ph.D.

Published on

misleading food labels
Even foods that are marketed as “healthy” can feature misleading food labels. iStock/petekarici

How do you decide whether a packaged food is nutritious? Clever labels and marketing schemes can trick consumers into thinking their products are healthy when they are far from it. Check out this article to learn about common misleading food labels, food engineers, and sugar addiction.

Misleading food labels and marketing schemes can trick consumers into thinking certain products are healthy—even when they’re not. Check out this article from Katie Melville for more on food labels, sugar addiction, and food engineers. #paleo #nutrition #wellness

Why “Organic” and “Gluten-Free” Don’t Say Much about How Healthy a Food Is

In general, “real” food shouldn’t need an ingredients list. Carrots are carrots, apples are apples, and you don’t need a label to tell you that. But, aside from produce, most foods in the grocery store do have nutrition labels, ingredients lists, and marketing phrases. Learning how to decipher this information to make healthy choices is an important skill.

So much of the food found in the aisles is processed full of nutrient-poor and even harmful ingredients, like:

At first glance, it’s not always easy to know how nutritious a food is based on the packaging. Sometimes ingredients are “hidden” even in seemingly simple, real foods. For example, chicken breasts can have added chicken broth (with unknown contents) that comprises up to 15 percent of the total package weight!

Other times, food labels can be downright misleading. Certain marketing phrases added to packaging try to convince us that foods are healthier than they might actually be. Don’t fall for them!


Products proudly display a “gluten-free” banner to convince consumers that it’s a healthy choice. Now, I agree completely that gluten isn’t a great option for many people. Approximately one in 20 people may have gluten sensitivity and the protein zonulin found in gluten can be damaging to the gut barrier. (1, 2) As it’s a grain, gluten isn’t very nutrient-dense, either.

But just because a product doesn’t have gluten, that says nothing about how nutritious it is. Is another grain replacing it, like rice flour? Rice flour might be comparatively “better” than wheat flour, as it doesn’t have gluten, but neither is very nutritious and both are mostly empty calories at best.

“Gluten-free” also says nothing about what else might be in the food. Regular potato chips are often gluten-free, but everyone agrees potato chips are objectively junk food. Gluten-free cookies may not have gluten, but they’re loaded with sugar.

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To display the organic label, crops need to be grown without synthetic fertilizers and have strict guidelines on what pest and weed control products are allowed. Organic fruits and vegetables are lower in pesticides and higher in micronutrients. (3) Meat can only be organic if the animals were fed organic feed, not given antibiotics or hormones, and “raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors.” (4) Whenever possible, opt for organic, whole foods.

However, the “organic” stamp on a packaged, processed food doesn’t guarantee that it’s healthy. Cascadian Farm Organic Cinnamon Crunch Cereal, for example, has a whopping 11 grams of added sugar per serving! The first four ingredients are wheat, sugar, rice flour, and sunflower oil—virtually void of nutrition aside from the added vitamins and minerals.

“X g Whole Grains per Serving”

People aren’t eating enough fiber, so food companies have responded by creating products with so many grams of whole grains per serving. Multi Grain Cheerios, for example, boasts “19 g whole grains per serving”—with oats, corn, sugar, and cornstarch as the first four ingredients.

The better way to increase fiber intake is by consuming more starchy and non-starchy vegetables.

“Low in Saturated Fat” and “Low/No Cholesterol”

We were told for decades that saturated fat and cholesterol were to blame for the rapid increase in cardiovascular disease. The diet–heart hypothesis isn’t supported by the majority of the scientific literature, (5) but old habits are hard to break. Foods labeled as “low in saturated fat” or “low in cholesterol” still convince many people that they’re a “healthier” option. But saturated fat and cholesterol aren’t the enemies; refined, processed junk food is.

“Low Sodium”

The manufacturers of chips, crackers, and other snacks have responded to consumers’ worries about salt intake by creating “low sodium” versions of well-loved treats. But, when the salt content is lowered, the manufacturers usually have to do something else to make up for lost taste. Often, it’s adding more sugar.

If you’re eating a nutrient-dense, varied, Paleo-type diet, high salt intake is usually not a concern. Furthermore, there are a bunch of misconceptions out there regarding salt in the diet. For more information, check out this article that sets the record straight on salt.

“Made With …”

Over a decade ago, I found a salad dressing in the grocery store that said “made with extra virgin olive oil” on the label. I was excited that dressings made without industrial seed oils were becoming a commercialized thing. However, after further investigation, I saw that the extra virgin olive oil was indeed on the ingredients list—but so still were canola oil and soybean oil. “Made with” can easily trick consumers who don’t check the label in its entirety.

Sneaky Sugars

“Sneaky sugars” isn’t a marketing label; it’s my name for the added sugars found in many, many foods that you might not expect. I’ve found added sugars in the ingredients lists of all of the following:

  • Spaghetti sauces
  • Canned corn
  • Canned beans
  • Yogurt
  • Peanut butter
  • Salad dressing
  • Bread
  • Canned soup
  • Applesauce
  • Spice blends

Sugars have many names in food labels, too:

  • Sucrose
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Corn syrup
  • Fruit concentrate
  • Brown sugar syrup
  • Cane syrup
  • Honey
  • Cane sugar …

The list goes on and on, but they’re all just different names for one thing: sugar.

The ingredients section lists the contents of a product in order of the highest amount to least. Sometimes, products will have multiple types of added sugars. Therefore, if a product has three different kinds of sugar scattered throughout the ingredients list, when they’re all added together, sugar might end up being the first ingredient.

The above examples aren’t an exhaustive list of all the misleading labeling strategies, but they’re some of the most common. It’s crucially important to know how to interpret food labels to avoid these ingredients and not be fooled by marketing claims.

Can’t Stop Buying Processed Snacks? It’s Not Your Fault

Maybe you already know about the harms of processed grains, added sugars, and industrial seed oils. Maybe you also know about some of the above labeling tricks, but you can’t seem to stop buying and eating your favorite snacks anyway. It’s not your fault. Food engineers are paid good money to design irresistibly appealing foods to keep you coming back for more.

Author and journalist Michael Moss wrote a fantastic book on this topic, called Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Food manufacturers use salt, fat, sugar, flavorings, and taste testers to perfect snack food qualities, including:

  • Taste
  • Sensation
  • Texture
  • Aroma
  • Appearance and color
  • Crunch
  • Mouth feel
  • And more

Moss discusses “the bliss point,” an optimized recipe for a product that maximizes consumers’ cravings. To give an example of how methodical and precise some of these tactics are, chip manufacturers have discovered that most people like a chip that crunches with about four pounds of pressure per square inch. (6)

Obesity and diabetes are at epidemic levels in the industrialized world. The latest statistics show that 42 percent of U.S. adults are obese and that nearly half of the adults have pre-diabetes or full-blown type 2 diabetes. (7, 8) It’s no coincidence that these conditions have risen with the increased availability of calorie-rich, palatable, processed foods. (9)

Evolutionarily, humans crave calorie-rich foods. Food scarcity was common for our ancestors, so they would eat in excess during times of plenty and be able to get by during times of famine. Although food availability has increased, our biology hasn’t changed much. The food industry takes advantage of the natural human reward system and capitalizes on it.

Is Food Addiction Real?

Whether humans can actually be addicted to food or sugar is still a contested subject in science. Some argue that since eating energy-dense foods is part of the body’s means for survival, “food addiction” differs greatly from drug addiction. (10) However, the two behaviors have overlapping characteristics, such as the activation of the dopaminergic system, which is involved in substance-seeking behavior, and of the opioidergic system, which is involved in pleasure. (11, 12)

Both food addiction and drug addiction show altered dopamine patterns in the nucleus accumbens center of the brain. In rats, high fructose corn syrup seems to be as addictive as cocaine. (13) And when high levels of sugar are suddenly removed from their diet, rats exhibit opiate-like withdrawal symptoms. (14)

Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies show that highly addictive foods, like potato chips, light up the nucleus accumbens in humans, but less palatable substitutes, like baked zucchini chips, do not. (15)

How to Set Yourself up for Success

Even if you want to stop eating processed foods, it’s not always easy. Here is where a health coach can be an asset. For some people, cutting out addictive-like foods completely is the best way to curb cravings. For others, moderation is key. A health coach can help determine your habits and triggers to set you up for success at home, at the grocery store, and even at restaurants.

Health coaches make a living by making a difference in the lives of their clients. If you’re looking for a way to channel your passion for health and wellness into a vibrant, fulfilling career, health coaching may be the right path for you. Find out how the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program can help you take the next steps toward your calling.

Not all food that comes in a box, a can, or a bag is junk—but so much of it is. That’s why learning to read nutrition labels and recognizing misleading labels are critical skills. The convenience of packaged foods can be tempting. Preparing a home-cooked meal from fresh ingredients isn’t always possible. When you’re in a pinch, check out this previous article about Paleo eating on the go. Don’t let marketing schemes compromise your health!

If you need additional support with refining your healthy diet and lifestyle, the California Center for Functional Medicine can help. Their membership-based, virtual program is designed to give you the tools, team, and support you need to transform your health. Find out how our Functional Medicine-based program can help you reclaim your health and your life.
Katie Melville
Katie Melville, Ph.D.

Katie Melville earned a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Cornell University, where she studied the mechanisms of bone formation and resorption. In particular, she elucidated the effects of sex hormones and their receptors on bone mass and architecture. She also researched estrogen's role in bone's response to mechanical loading. She has co-authored several peer-reviewed research papers, written book chapters, and has presented at national conferences, including those held by the Orthopaedic Research Society and the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research.

Her interest in Ancestral Health and Functional Medicine began over a decade ago, when she started following Chris Kresser's articles and podcasts. Over the years, she has made significant changes to her family’s lifestyle, including adopting a Paleo diet template, installing a reverse-osmosis water filter, and incorporating a standing desk into her office space.

Since 2016, she has been honored to be a writer and researcher for Chris Kresser and Kresser Institute, relying on peer-reviewed literature and incorporating Chris's clinic experiences into her articles. Katie strives to understand the current knowledge surrounding human chronic disease, and enjoys digging deep into the scientific literature. She believes the future of healthcare lies in functional medicine.

Katie has also written for Natural Womanhood, a popular website that shares the benefits of fertility tracking and using natural, fertility awareness-based methods of birth control. For continued education, Katie has completed online courses from Stanford on scientific writing and how to critically interpret clinical trials.

Professionally, Katie works for Recruitomics Biotalent Consulting as a Scientific Recruiter for start-up biotech companies in the Boston area. Being in this role exposes her to the latest technological and medical


She lives near Boston with her husband and 3 young children, and she enjoys powerlifting and cooking in her spare time.

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