Misleading Food Labels: How to Navigate the Grocery Store

Zach Micklea

| 4 min read

Woman in the grocery store
Have you ever felt overwhelmed with the different choices and varieties at the grocery store? What about when looking for healthier options? Many Americans are more health conscious than ever, so healthy options seem to be abundant. Unfortunately, some companies can use marketing, advertising and product design to make their products seem healthier than they really are.
This makes being an educated consumer more important than ever. Reading the labels on products, especially packaged products, and learning what they actually mean is critical. While it may not always be possible to get the best-in-class ingredients and food all the time, this guide will teach you what to be on the lookout for and which products should be avoided.


Natural. The use of the word natural on products is not clearly defined or regulated. Seeing the word on a package, we want to believe that it is good for us and does not have artificial substances or chemicals. This is not always the case. Just because something is natural does not mean it is better for us.
One of the biggest forms of misinformation in the food industry is “natural flavors.” While the FDA defines the term as substances created from plant or animal sources, these flavors still contain some of the same chemicals as artificial flavors.
Heart-healthy or low cholesterol. If you see these labels on food packaging, turn it over to read the nutrition facts and the ingredients list on the back. These are other examples of terms that make you think the food is good for you, but when you dig deeper, you may find ingredients that are not ideal.
To determine the product’s true nutritional value, you can look at its heart-check verification, because it has specific requirements in order to earn this certification.
Gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, Keto, Paleo. While it is great to have so many options that fit into the many different types of diets, a product having these buzzwords is not guaranteed to be healthier than those without. Like the word natural, these terms are not well regulated. For example, Oreos are technically vegan, but certainly not healthy. Be sure to review the ingredients list on the back of the product before putting it into your cart. Check for artificial flavorings, preservatives and other unhealthy additives.
Cage-free, vegetarian fed, no hormones added. When it comes to meat, eggs and dairy products, there are many different labels thrown around to make us feel like we are making a healthy choice. These words do not always mean what may think.
For example, hormones and steroids have already been banned by the USDA on chickens, so the claim of being hormone free should be true for all chicken products. Poultry and meat that are fed a vegetarian diet does not mean they eat green grass on a beautiful pasture. Oftentimes, it can mean they are fed a genetically modified grain unless specified as non-GMO or organic. Cage-free does mean animals are not locked in cages but does not mean they have access to the outdoors or enough space to roam.
Many Americans purchase these products in hopes that it will better their health, or perhaps, help with weight loss, but these products have the potential to do the opposite. MI Blues Perspectives spoke with a registered dietician and certified health coach about why these attempts tend not to work very well and healthy tips you should follow.
You are not alone if you have purchased and consumed food with these labels in the past. For all the foods with misleading labels, there are an increasing number of better-quality ingredient foods on the grocery store shelves. The more we know about what is in our food, the better choices we can make from what is available to us.
Photo credit: eldinhoid

A Healthier Michigan is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.
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