Interpreting Food Labels: 6 Ways Not to Get Fooled at the Grocery Store

interpreting food labels


Just as you should never grocery shop when you’re hungry – don’t go without your glasses or your thinking cap on either. It’s all too easy to get fooled when interpreting food labels. At first glance, what appears to be a healthy product may be anything but.


That’s because manufacturers know all the tricks they can use to make a food seem “better for you” than it actually is. But never fear – you can outsmart them by doing a little detective work before dropping an item in your grocery cart.


Here are some of the most common “tricks” companies use to make you think you’re eating healthy.

The Trans-Fat Cover-Up


Do you get a good feeling when you read the nutritional label and see an item has “zero” grams of trans-fat? When interpreting food labels, don’t assume trans-fat free is what it says.


The FDA has left a loophole where manufacturers can “round down” to zero if a product has less than 0.5 grams of trans-fat per serving. That may not sound like a lot but eat enough foods with “just a little” trans-fat and you may be putting your health at risk.


Research shows even small amounts of trans-fat are risky to your health. So how do you know whether a product is REALLY trans-fat free? Check the ingredient list. If it lists partially hydrogenated oil of any type it’s not trans-fat free.


Next time you’re at the grocery store do a little experiment. Pick up a few packaged items and see how many of them list partially hydrogenated oils in their ingredient list. That’ll help you get in the habit of checking for them when you shop.


Just recently at the grocery store, we discovered almost every sugar-free cookie package we picked up had partially hydrogenated oils on the ingredient list. It’s more common than you think.

Sneaky Serving Size Tricks


Have you ever picked up a candy bar that’s about the right size for one person and been pleased to see it only had only 200 calories? Before munching on that candy bar, look at the number of servings in the package.


In some cases, the number of servings will be two or even three. That means you have to multiply the calories, fat grams, grams of sugar and every other component in that candy bar by two or three. So a candy bar with 200 calories could be a 400 or even 600 calorie bar.


Manufacturers want you to ASSUME that candy bar is only one serving and think you’re eating fewer calories than you are. The same applies to beverages. Many times I’ve picked up a bottled tea that looked modest in size and found it was listed as two servings. Don’t be fooled. Get in the habit of checking serving size and number of servings and multiply the calories and sugar by that number.


Throwing Around the Word Natural Too Freely


People feel good when they think something is “natural” and that encourages them to buy. Unfortunately, manufacturers can toss that term around liberally because the FDA defines natural only as being free of artificial colors, flavors, and synthetic ingredients.


By this definition, you can call a product with high-fructose corn syrup, a mixture of glucose and fructose, natural because there are no synthetic ingredients. Manufacturers do this. When interpreting food labels, think of “natural” as a marketing term food that beverage makers like to use to give you the “warm fuzzies” when you’re grocery shopping – and get you to buy.


On the other hand, there are certain criteria that have to be met to call a product organic. To label a product as certified organic, it must be grown, raised or made with ingredients that are free of hormones, antibiotics, and synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. It also must not be genetically modified. If money isn’t an issue, choose the certified organic rather than the ill-defined natural product.


Disguising Ingredients


Trying to avoid MSG? Don’t assume it’s going to be listed as such on the label. Manufacturers often hide MSG by calling it “yeast extract” or “hydrolyzed vegetable protein.”

In the same way, they “sugarcoat” sugar by calling it one of the dozens of names like dextrose, dextran, invert sugar, maltodextrin and so many more. They all add up to one thing – sugar.

Here’s a link to a full list of “alternative” names for sugar. Print it out and keep it handy when you read food labels.

Interpreting Food Labels: The Whole Grain Conundrum


If there’s one aspect of food labels that confuse people it’s whole grains. You see, manufacturers can say on the package “made with whole grains” if a product contains only a small amount. A product can be “made with whole grain” and still be mostly refined flour.


Multi-grain is another one to watch out for when interpreting food labels. It describes a mix of grains – whole and refined. What you want to look for is the word whole – whole wheat or whole grain and see it first on the ingredient list. Look for a high fiber count too.


Absent Ingredients


Here’s one for you. Manufacturers can offer products that don’t have the ingredient they list on the front of the package. Ever buy cereal with “blueberries?” The blueberries in that cereal may be flavored balls of sugar colored with food coloring to look like food coloring. I can guarantee you there weren’t a lot of antioxidants in that bowl of cereal.


How can you avoid this fakery? Read the ingredient list to make sure blueberries are listed as one of the top ingredients. Don’t rely on what’s on the front of the package. That’s advertising.


The Bottom Line?


If you take away anything from this, understand the importance of reading the label and not being swayed by what’s on the front of the package. Don’t be influenced by wholesome-sounding marketing terms like “natural” and “pure” or pretty pictures of pastures and healthy-looking people eating the product.


Get the facts on the back of the package by reading the nutritional information and the ingredient list. You can bet we’ll be doing the same.



U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Food Labeling Guide”

Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.