Food Labels: Friend or Foe?

By Ann Thelen

Recent headlines involving brands large and small remind us that the world of food marketing is a wild, crazy and serious one.

  • Chipotle Sued for Misleading Menu Labeling Practices 
  • General Mills Sued Over Nutritional Content of Cheerios Protein
  • Hunt’s Slammed for ‘No GMOs in Sight’ Tomato Marketing Ploy
  • Coca-Cola Sued for False Advertising on Fruit Juice Labels

With so many claims promising this or extolling the virtues of that, consumers are often left feeling baffled, confused and concerned.

So how do you break through the cluttered buffet of food jargon? By relying on common sense, understanding the motives of food marketers, being a savvy shopper and seeking the input of reputable people, including farmers.

Confusion Reigns

If you find yourself walking through the grocery aisles feeling overwhelmed and confused by packaging buzzwords, you’re not alone. A recent Iowa Food & Family Project survey of 400 food-minded Iowans found that nearly 90 percent of respondents find food labels confusing or somewhat confusing. 

Cutting through the noise can be difficult, experts says, especially given how busy shoppers are and the voracity of competing claims. But with a few simple tips and arming yourself with knowledge, you can navigate the aisles with confidence knowing you’re making smart decisions. You can also protect yourself from falling victim to exaggerations or being swayed into purchasing a product or paying more for food based on claims that may be untrue.

  1. There’s an old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and this advice should apply to the food you purchase. Keep in mind that every food and beverage product (and brand) is competing for your attention. Competition is fierce, so food manufacturers adorn packaging with buzzwords to give the impression that their product is a health food or is better for you in some way. In many cases, these words are misleading as to what you really need – or are getting – in your food.

  2. Some food labels are strictly regulated by the Food & Drug Administration and others are not. Whether it’s labeled organic, natural, GMO-free, gluten-free or lower fat, you still need to do your homework to know what it all means and whether the claim should influence your purchasing choice. 

  3. Most claims made on a package are puffery. So, be sure to pay attention to the nutrition label. Go back to the basics and pay more attention to the nutrition label on the back rather than marketing labels on the front.  For almost three decades, the mandatory nutrition label has been where you’ll find important facts including serving size, vitamin and protein counts, details on fat content, and a comprehensive ingredients list. 

  4. Keep in mind that just because food is labeled a certain way doesn’t mean it’s a healthy choice. Since there’s no legal or government-regulated definition for being labeled “natural,” marketers often take liberties with this so-called attribute. If you think “natural” can be quantified, then ask yourself “where’s the ‘unnatural’ alternative?’”

  5. When you’re buying a product that is labeled fat-free, it may be lower in fat but is there is a tradeoff? Lower fat may mean that a higher sugar content is needed to compensate for the flavor loss of lower fat.

Bottom line: Don’t let jargon and buzzwords bog you down. Become familiar with the terms and do your homework. Look at the ingredients list so that you can determine if the food is natural, or not, or if less of one thing means more of another!

Perspective Matters

Keep your perspective when scanning food labels. Doing so can save you stress, time and money. 

“Be careful about jumping to conclusions based solely on certain aspects of a food label,” suggests Anne Hytrek, a registered dietitian at the Ankeny Prairie Trail Hy-Vee. “Dig deeper into the facts because there’s much more to the story than what’s printed on a label.”

For example, if you’re deciding between 2 percent or whole milk, understand the difference. Just because fat content is not part of the product name in whole milk, it doesn’t mean that it is made largely of fat, or even substantially of fat. In fact, whole milk doesn't contain much fat at all and is only about 3.5 percent fat!

Because GMO-free has become a trending labeling term, some companies label their products GMO-free even when a GMO alternative doesn’t exist. That’s where savvy consumers who have done their homework aren’t fooled by front-of-the-label marketing ploys and, in the process, avoid needlessly paying more.

If a product is accurately labeled GMO-free, take time to understand how it compares to the product that contains GMOs. Nearly all the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. The overwhelming consensus by experts is that foods containing GMOs are safe and pose no health concerns. In fact, a renowned group of experts recently concluded this same fact after reviewing 900 studies and data spanning the 20 years since GMOs were introduced.


Understanding food labels takes practice. Whether you’re at a farmer’s market or grocery store, ask questions. Many grocery stores have dietitians on staff to help consumers with everything from deciphering labels to meal planning to wellness coaching.

Also, seek out farmers for information. The Iowa Food & Family Project often hosts farm tours where you can actively participate in a day of learning and get your questions answered by the people who know best – the families who grow food. The Iowa FFP’s “Fresh Pickings” newsletter, website and social media channels are also excellent sources for information.  

Another timely resource is the Food Labels edition of Hy-Vee Health Notes. It offers comprehensive, science-based health and lifestyle information. Written with consumers in mind, Healthnotes answers the most commonly asked questions with credible, easy-to-understand information edited by physicians who review over 550 scientific and medical journals to keep content current, factual and balanced.