Food & Nutrition
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Don't Be Fooled by Food Labels

6 tricky claims explained

I recently took a client on a field trip to a grocery store. We found interesting foods to try and some very interesting and tricky food labels. It was a good reminder to look beyond the hype of claims and descriptions on the front of the package and to carefully examine the Nutrition Facts panel on every potential purchase. Here are six confusing label terms. (Be sure to check with your care team if you have any questions about your diabetes meal plan.)


Few of my clients know that the word “natural” on a food label has no legal definition and tells us nothing of the healthfulness of the food. Though they have not defined the term, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not object when manufacturers call a food natural as long as the food does not contain any added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.

There are also some so-called natural products that I caution my clients to be extra aware of. Take a “natural breakfast cookie” for example. Even if whole-wheat flour is the first ingredient, sugar could be listed as the second, or label could state that the cookie contains two servings of 210 calories each. That’s 420 calories in a single cookie!

In fact, supermarket shelves may be packed with “natural” cookies, chips, candy, soda, ice cream and more. I tell my clients that if they choose to enjoy small portions of treat foods now and then, that the natural versions may not be any more nutritious than their regular counterparts. (Learn more about making healthful eating choices.)

The FDA is now considering whether natural needs a definition for food label use. In fact, you can leave a comment. Learn more on the FDA website.


Many shoppers these days seek out and buy eggs produced by “cage-free” hens. Consumers often believe that these hens are treated more humanely, but that may not be the case. According to the Egg Nutrition Center, conventionally raised hens eat a more controlled diet, are more readily protected from predators and diseases, and they have lower mortality rates. Plus, if cage-free brings up visions of hens walking and clucking in open grass fields, you may have an inaccurate picture in your head. Cage-free may not mean that the animal spends time outdoors.


This one sure can trick a lot of dieters and people living with diabetes. I agree that sugar-free sounds like it might be low in calories and better for people living with diabetes. But once again, the devil is in the details. And those details are in the Nutrition Facts panel and the ingredients list. Like other desserts, sugar-free baked goods may typically be loaded with carbohydrates from flour or other grains. They also might be heavy in calories and saturated fats.

(Learn more about what “sugar-free” means, and how to recognize added sugar in food labels.)


The USDA Organic Seal indicates that the food or ingredients are grown in specified ways. It does not suggest that a food is wholesome and nutritious. Organic foods are raised without synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering. Though manufacturers may use organic ingredients, cookies, sugary cereals, chips and the like should not deserve a prominent place in the shopping cart. Don’t assume that organic salad dressing, yogurt or spaghetti is wholesome either until you’ve scrutinized the full labels.

(Read more on whether organic foods may be worth the extra cost.)

Made with …

I see so many labels touting “made with whole grains” or “made with real fruit.” These claims can be meaningless unless we know how much whole grain or real fruit is in the products. Look at the ingredients list to see the items listed at the top as these are the ingredients present in the greatest amounts.

Made without …

It’s common to think that if a food label says a food is free of something, like “gluten-free,” “fat-free” or “grain-free,” that these are always undesirable contents. Certainly for some – people living with celiac disease, for example – gluten may be a concern, although that may not be the case for you. Talk to your diabetes care team if you have questions about your meal plan and if there are foods you should avoid.

Your best strategy against misleading food labels is to take your time looking carefully at the full label, not just the large attention-grabbing letters on the front. (Read more tips for what to look for and what to avoid on food labels if you live with diabetes.) 


Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE*, FAND, CHWC, is the author of Diabetes Weight Loss Week by Week, The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition and 21 Things You Need to Know about Diabetes and Your HeartShe is contributing editor for Environmental Nutrition, and has written for many publications including EatingWell, Diabetic Living, Diabetes Forecast and Kids Eat Right. She has a private practice in Newport News, VA. Weisenberger is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewees, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

*“Certified Diabetes Educator” and “CDE” are certification marks owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services

© 2016 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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