Have you set an intention to purchase foods that support your health and weight loss objectives? Without knowing it, you may still be selecting foods that aren’t as nutritious as they appear.

Beyond counting your caloric and nutrient intake, you must also learn to identify deceptive product packaging. You may be disappointed to find that some of your favorite “healthy” food choices are unhealthy foods in disguise.

How food is marketed in commercials and on the packaging is sometimes designed to mislead you. Lawsuits over misleading food labels are on the rise. Most of these lawsuits are centered around trying to make food sound more nutritious than it truly is. 

Here’s what you need to know beyond the buzzword-filled packaging.

"What Are Whole Foods?

Let’s begin with a bit of nutrition 101, since it’s not something we are taught in school. Yes, we learn the Food Pyramid, but there is so much more to consider. At the top of this list is centering your daily meals around whole foods.

Whole foods are unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Some foods must be minimally processed for consumption, preservation, convenience, and to offer a larger range of options. 

When foods are ultra-processed, ingredients that should be consumed in moderation (or not at all) are added. These ingredients are added for taste, flavor, color, or to create a more profitable product. Ultra-processing can also deplete the original nutrient content.

Processed ingredients include:

  • Unhealthy oils
  • Trans fat
  • Sugar
  • Sugar alcohol
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Preservatives
  • Synthetic dyes
  • Synthetic flavoring
  • Synthetic aromatics

How Do I Know If Food Is Minimally Processed?

Minimally processed foods are nutrient-rich and typically only have a handful of easily identifiable ingredients on the label. The FDA continually updates how ingredients must be displayed, to minimize the negative impact of misleading food labels.

Some health experts advise to only eat foods found in nature, to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store, or only shop in the health food aisle. These tips ring true but count out a lot of foods that are minimally processed. There are a variety of methods of minimal processing that ensure the convenience you need in your busy lifestyle.

Here are a few examples to help you determine how processed a food item is: 

  • Instead of adding sugar and salt as a preservative, foods can be frozen, fermented, pickled, cured, or canned for preservation.
  • Whether you eat asparagus (or other fruits and veggies) fresh, canned pickled, or frozen it remains a whole food.
  • Fish in the seafood department is fresh, but it can also be frozen, canned, fermented, or cured. Breaded fish or frozen fish sticks have far less nutrient value.
  • All dairy products are at least minimally processed, but some are ultra-processed. This is the difference between plain yogurt with no added sugar and yogurt that has added sugar and dye to make it taste fruity and look more appealing.  
  • Vanilla-flavored non-dairy milk contains around 9 grams of sugar per serving while plain non-dairy milk contains around 1 gram of sugar per serving.
  • Most of the nutrients in instant white rice are processed out, but brown rice, wild rice, red rice, quinoa, and other whole grains are nutrient-rich.
  • Plain nuts are a whole food and roasting them in herbs and spices is an alternative way to enjoy them. However, candied, yogurt-covered, or chocolate-covered nuts are not as healthy. 

Now let’s dive into the buzzwords placed on product packaging at the center of the debate surrounding misleading food labels. 

#1 Fat-Free

While a product may not contain fat, it may be high in calories and sugar. While you must be mindful of fat, you should be counting both your sugar and your calories.

Research from the Harvard School of Public Health shows that the average American consumes 4 to 5 times the amount of suggested sugar per day. Sugar is linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and a variety of chronic health conditions.

The daily maximum grams of sugar per day is:

  • 24 grams of sugar per day for women, which is about 6 teaspoons.
  • 36 grams of sugar per day for men, which is about 9 teaspoons. 

If losing weight is your objective, aim for less sugar per day and obtain most of your sugar from natural sources, such as fresh or frozen fruit. 

#2 Zero Trans Fat

While no trans fat is a good thing, the product could be high in overall fat or high in calories and sugar. But let’s discuss trans fat a bit more. 

According to the American Heart Association, trans fat is proven to increase your LDL (aka. “bad”) cholesterol levels and lower your HDL (aka. “good”) cholesterol levels. So, it’s essential to keep it to a minimum. 

Trans fat is almost always synthetically derived. Whole foods with naturally occurring trans fat typically have low percentages. For example, at 1.1 grams per serving, beef has approximately half of the suggested daily maximum amount of trans fat.

#3 Zero Calories

Burning more calories per day than you consume is key to weight loss and weight maintenance. If this has you counting your calories, you may be drawn to “zero calorie” beverages—which have misleading food labels.

While these beverages may not contain calories, they may contain sugar and other synthetic ingredients.

#4 No Added Sugars

This means that a product only contains naturally occurring sugars, such as the sugar in fruit or honey, and that no sugar was added during processing. However, these products may contain sugar alcohol or artificial sweeteners.

Some sugar alcohols can raise blood sugar, meaning they have a similar effect as sugar. There are ongoing debates surrounding the health risks of many artificial sweeteners.

#5 Reduced Sugar

Some misleading product labels state “reduced”, “less”, or “lower” sugar. According to the American Heart Association, this means that the product contains at least 25% less sugar than the regular version of a product.

Even at 25% less per serving, read the grams per serving, as the product may still be high in sugar.

#6 Made With Real Fruit  

If you are trying to get most of your daily sugar intake from natural sources such as fruit, you may be drawn to products labeled “made with real fruit”.

This phrasing only means that there is at least a tiny bit of real fruit or fruit juice concentrate. The rest of the “fruit” is likely to be synthetically derived.

#7 Fruit Flavored

“Fruit flavored” means precisely that. It contains artificial fruit flavoring, and maybe a tiny bit of real fruit.

Fruit flavoring is synthetic, and it is high in sugar or both sugar and synthetic sweeteners.

#8 Whole Grains or Multigrain

Just like “made with real fruit”, foods labeled “whole grain” or “multigrain” may contain misleading product labels.

Whole grains retain all 3 parts of the grain, the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. Refined grains have the germ and bran removed and are not as nutrient-rich.

Just like products labeled “real fruit”, “whole grain” and “multigrain” must only contain a small fraction of truly whole grains 

#9 Light

There are currently no guidelines regarding what “light” means. Many brands create a “light” product that is a tiny bit healthier than their standard product.


This often means the product is lacking in nutrients, but has lower calories, sugar, or fat than their standard version.

#10 Vegan or Vegetarian

While products must be vegan or vegetarian if they are labeled so, that doesn’t inherently mean they are nutrient-rich. Food can be higher in sugar, healthy fats, and calories and not contain dairy or animal by-products. 

On that same note, not all foods in the health food aisle, organic aisle, health food stores, or health food restaurants support your wellness objectives. Or only when eaten in moderation.

Need Help Creating Nutrient-Rich Meal Plans?

Understanding misleading food labels is a step in the right direction, but you still may not be clear on what foods to buy. To accelerate your health, wellness, and weight loss journey—consider enrolling in one of our Medical Weight Loss Programs.

Our programs are based on scientifically-proven strategies and provide you with a variety of resources—including delicious and nutrient-rich meal plans. The average amount of weight loss is 2 to 5 pounds per week!

Reach out to Valley Medical Weight Loss and Med Spa today to discuss our weight loss options.  



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