Don’t let food labels fool you

(AP Photo/Russel A. Daniels)

As a parent, you have a million things on your weekly to do list, and somewhere on that list is grocery shopping. While cruising through the aisles, you are mentally organizing your meals, finding the best deals, and buying the best products for your family. You put the “9 grain” bread in the cart next to the “all natural” yogurt because the claims on the packaging ensure it’s healthy. Right?

Wrong. I'm afraid to tell you you've been fooled. Yes — you, me, pediatricians, and anyone who has been to the grocery store in the last five years and purchased the “multigrain” cereal, 9-grain bread or “all natural” yogurt without reading the ingredients label first. Many of the claims that we see on the packaging of foods for children and instinctively trust are nothing more than clever marketing terms.

A 2011 study called Claiming Health examined 58 children’s food products marketed as healthy choices on the front of the package. The nutritional content was compared with Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  Of the products compared, 84 percent failed to meet the DRIs for total fat, saturated fat, sugar, sodium or fiber. 

What concerns me most is that parents can easily be misguided because the terms on the front of the package may not be regulated language. But there are no national standards behind claims like “all natural” “no artificial…”, “stoneground” and many more. The Food and Drug Administration does have regulations for phrases such as “High in,” and “Good source of.”  But that still doesn’t mean the product is considered “healthy.” 

With a claim on every box and bottle, how do you know what statements to trust?


Term/ Claim                                    Regulated Definition                                    Considerations           


Meets all requirements for fat, sodium, cholesterol, and 10 percent of the Daily Value (DV)  of vitamins A, C, iron, protein, calcium and fiber

Though this product has many important nutrients covered, double check the serving size, calories and sugar to make sure it’s a good choice

Excellent source of

Provides 20 percent of the DV for a particular vitamin/ nutrient

Often found on juice products and cereals, make certain the sugar and fiber content is appropriate

High Fiber

Five or more grams per serving

Check your cereals, breads, and other grain products to maximize the fiber intake

Low Fat

Less than 3 grams (per 100 grams of food) or not more than 30% of calories from fat

Sometimes manufacturers will add sugar or other sweeteners to make up taste for the loss of fat

Made with whole grains

The products is made with some whole grain

Check the first two ingredients for the words “whole.”  If it’s not until the third ingredient or below, pick something else

Multigrain/ Stoneground / 5-, 7-, or 12 grain

No official definition

No assurance that the product has whole grains or fiber

All natural / no artificial

No official definition

No regulation on either of these terms. Be sure that you know what each ingredient is in the product

Smart or sensible snack/ choice/ product

No official definition

Terms that may meet a manufacturer’s criteria, but not a national standard

Other terms that have no regulated definition or may be misleading: “Supports a healthy immune system,” “High in antioxidants,” “Maintains a healthy heart.”

Tips for parents to avoid marketing traps:  

  • The front of the package is marketing; the back of the package is the truth. Turn the product around, and look at the nutrition fact panel.
  • Look at the ingredients because they are listed in order of the amount in the food.  If “refined” or “enriched” is in one of the first three items listed, skip it
  • If the product has “no trans fat,” make sure it’s also low in saturated fat
  • Don’t be fooled by a product labeled “smart.”  We never know whose definition of smart we may be using. 

Being an informed consumer will help you make better nutrition choices.  And remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.