Food Labels That Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t pay much attention to the labels on the food you buy. If the package says “natural” and it’s mostly brown, that probably means it’s healthier than the colorful item right next to it, right? Into the cart it goes. Unfortunately, labels can be deceiving — especially the ones trying to convince you to make a split second decision while perusing a dozen different varieties of something like peanut butter. Here are some of the things you may have missed when glancing over labels, and it may surprise you at how much you’ve been misled.


Wheat is a plant in the grass family, and its seed is both edible and highly starchy. White flour is made from the inner, starchy part of that seed. Whole wheat flour is made from the entire seed, which includes the germ and the bran. So what are you getting if you buy “wheat bread,” or if the first ingredient in the list is “wheat flour?” Often you’re buying white bread, or bread made with white flour. If you’re looking for whole wheat, you want to see the word “whole” in there.

If you lived through the 1990's, you probably remember when everything was “light.” The implication was that the “light” item was lower in fat, and sometimes lower in calories as well. Although the trend has subsided, you can still get “light” olive oil, which doesn't mean low fat and has never meant low fat, low calorie, or anything like that. Light olive oil simply has less olive taste. It’s also lighter in color, hence the name, and has a higher smoke point. It still has the same 14 grams of fat and 120 calories per tablespoon as extra virgin olive oil.

How many times have you bought peanut butter with the label “natural” on it? You want the stuff that has just peanuts and salt, rather than the brands that are packed with hydrogenated oil and sugar. Natural Skippy comes in a brown jar with a brown lid, and it says “natural,” so that’s the same thing, right? Wrong! Look at the label — it says peanuts, sugar, palm oil, and salt. The nutritional content between regular and “natural” Skippy is identical. Under U.S. law, food companies can use the word “natural” without having to meet any specific criteria or definition, so buyer beware.

Want to use less oil in your cooking? Flip over a can of PAM and you’ll see the spray contains zero calories and zero grams of fat. Great, no calories there, right? That’s only because a “serving” is listed as a “¼ second spray.” If you hold the can a good 12 inches from your pan and barely touch the nozzle, you can sometimes actually get a burst of spray to cover the pan, but that’s not necessarily enough to cook your eggs, and it’s definitely not what most of us do. The spray is nearly entirely oil. It’s not fat-free — it's fat — but the rules for nutrition labels say that if the serving contains less than half a gram of fat, you can list it as containing zero grams of fat. If the serving contains less than 5 calories, you can report the calorie content as zero. PAM and others like them are just regular oils. The only thing that makes them supposedly low calorie is that the serving size is very, very small.

Processed meats have been associated with health concerns, and the nitrites and nitrates found in cured meats — like bacon — may potentially affect blood pressure and other aspects of heart health. So, it’s understandable if you want to be cautious and eat less cured meat. However, “uncured” bacon (or ham, etc) is not the way to do that. It’s still cured, meaning that nitrites are added to preserve the meat and to help it keep its pink color. Instead of being cured with sodium nitrite, it’s cured with something like celery powder, which naturally contains nitrite. Oddly enough, the labeling regulations require that celery-cured bacon be labeled “uncured,” but chemically, it’s the same thing.