11 Ways You Didn’t Realize You’re Reading Food Labels Wrong

Updated: Dec. 01, 2023

Think those labels on your package are self-explanatory? Not so fast. Those words and numbers aren’t always what they appear.

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Potato chips
Ruslan Mitin/Shutterstock

You assume fat- and sugar-free products are healthy

Depending on your dietary needs, cutting back on sugar or fat could help you reach your health goals. But be careful: Reduced-fat products tend to have extra sodium or sugar, and lower sugar often means more fat or salt, says Libby Mills, MS, RDN, LDN, FAND, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Whatever they’re taking out, they typically add something else to add flavor,” she says. Plus, you might actually find yourself more satisfied with a full-fat product. For instance, if just a small handful of regular potato chips kills your craving but you could polish off a family-sized bag of baked chips easily, stick with the fattier version. These are the unhealthiest foods you can buy at the supermarket.

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Closeup of woman eating chocolate
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

You don’t note the serving size

When you hunker down with a bag of chips, you could be blowing way past the recommended serving size, meaning you’re eating more calories and fat than you thought, says Jen Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For an easy, no-measure trick, she recommends noting the number of servings in a package, then eyeballing how much a serving would be, like half of a two-portion bag. Be extra careful with packages that look like a single serving. “Even with small items like candy bars, it’s important to see how many servings are in your hand,” she says. “Just because it can fit in your hand or you can eat it in one sitting doesn’t mean it fits one serving size by nutrition.” Here’s the easiest way to portion your serving sizes.

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The guy chooses pineapples in the supermarket.

You think “all natural” and “organic” are the same

Certified organic products have gone through an application and been inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure they meet the criteria—organic plants don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and meats are from animals that eat organic feed and haven’t been given antibiotics or hormones. However, the label “all natural” doesn’t have such strict guidelines. “All natural doesn’t really mean a lot to us,” says Mills. “We know that by FDA standards it means they’ve been minimally processed, but to what degree that ‘minimally’ means to each manufacturer may be a little different.” Check instead for specific labels you care about, like antibiotic- or GMO-free. Here’s how to decode the trickiest terms on food labels.

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Kym McLeod/Shutterstock

You imagine free-range animals frolicking in fields

Free-range animals haven’t been raised in cages, but that doesn’t mean they’re free to wander outside whenever they want. “It doesn’t guarantee that the animal has access to the great wilderness outdoors at all. They may be completely in a roofed building their entire life,” says Mills. “They may have a door to have some sunlight access, but it doesn’t guarantee every animal gets to go out.”

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Woman cafe worker adding sugar to bowl with dessert ingredients.
Daniel Jedzura/Shutterstock

You think all sugar is created equal

Sure, foods like milk and fruit contain natural sugars, but they also come packed with other important nutrients. On the other hand, added sugar like table sugar, corn syrup and honey are basically empty calories. “When making a judgment of too much or too little sugar, it’s deceptive,” says Mills. “You have to look at the actual ingredients in the product.” If sugar is listed in the first half of the ingredients, you can bet it’ll pack a big caloric punch, she says, but sugar in the last half isn’t as significant.

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Beet juice

You think “made with real fruit” is basically a packaged apple

A product claiming “made with real fruit” does indeed contain fruit—but that doesn’t mean it can’t also include added sugars or artificial flavor. “It can say ‘made with real fruit,’ and real fruit is included in that product, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things,” says Bruning. “You still want to check the ingredient list and see what else is there.” Give these healthier drinks a try!

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Sliced bread with sunflower seeds and sesame on a plate

You think all wheat bread is a superfood

Seek out breads labeled 100 percent whole wheat or 100 percent whole grain to pack the biggest health punch. During processing, grain kernels are separated into three parts: germ, endosperm and bran. Most products lose most of the bran and some germ—which contain important vitamins, protein, fats and fiber—but whole grains keep the amounts intact. But look closely: if a label just says “whole grain” without specifying 100 percent, it could contain other, more refined flours, too. “If it says contains whole grains, that means somewhere in that ingredient list you’ll find all three parts of a whole grain,” says Bruning. “It might be left whole or processed into flour, but it’s there.” Same goes for multigrain bread, which just means it has different types of grains, regardless of how processed they are.

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Gluten free food. Various pasta, bread, snacks and flour on wooden background from top view

You assume gluten-free is healthier

Unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, there’s no need to cut gluten from your diet. In fact, your waistline could actually take a hit if you replace regular breads with gluten-free versions. Gluten helps bread keep its shape, so manufacturers add ingredients like corn syrup and sugar to get the right texture. “A lot of bread products have a lot of extra fat compared to non-gluten-free products,” says Mills. “Gluten-free folks really need to watch for it in a big way.” Here’s what happens to your body when you go gluten-free.

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Nutrition label focused on Trans Fat content concept healthy eating

You don’t look at the type of fat breakdown

Total fat is listed on a nutrition label because fat has more calories per gram than carbs or protein, so high-fat foods tend to be high-calorie, says Bruning. But scan down a bit more and you’ll see it broken down into saturated fats and trans fats. “Those are called out because saturated fats, and especially trans fats, are linked to higher incidents of heart disease,” says Bruning. Some manufacturers also choose to list “good” monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, which are actually beneficial for your heart and cholesterol.

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Reading the label on a jug of milk at the grocery store

You fall for healthy-looking packaging

Just because a product has the word “harvest” or “simple” doesn’t mean it’s earned its health halo. Take a deeper look at its ingredients and nutrition to decide for yourself—it could still be high in calories, fat or sugar. “We used to have to spend all our days hunting and gathering food, and somehow we think we don’t have to spend any time anymore,” says Mills. “Turn the package over and really know what you’re getting.”

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Vitamin C on wooden table.

You take percent daily value as law

The percent daily value you see next to vitamins, minerals and other nutrients is based on the average diet, not your individual needs. “Percent daily values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which is across the spectrum what we call average for healthy adults,” says Bruning. “Many fall into a range of more or less than that.” You probably won’t run the risk of overdosing on a vitamin from food sources, but if you think you’re falling short, ask your doctor if you should start taking a supplement. Watch for these common symptoms you’re not getting enough Vitamin B12.