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Top 6 Misleading Food Labels According to Consumer Reports

Posted in Our Blog on June 13, 2024

Food labels are important. They not only tell you what the product is, how much you get in the serving, and nutritional values. They also tell you when it is expected to go bad (expiration date) or when quality may begin to decline (best by date). It may even give a recipe for using it, cooking instructions, or benefits of using the product.

All good things.

But sometimes manufacturers use misleading food labels to influence buying decisions. Words, phrases, and health claims that get your attention. Sometimes the wording can come across as informative, but upon more in-depth inspection, you may find yourself duped by these misleading food labels enough to sway your decision as to what ends up in your shopping cart.

Consumer Reports demystifies some of these catchy buzzwords used in product packaging to arm you with the knowledge to protect yourself (and your wallet) from misleading food labels found on popular product packaging.

Misleading Food Labels Can Mask Not-So-Healthy Products

You may go to the grocery store with the best of intentions. Buying healthy food for your family. Sometimes, however, a good marketing team and design graphics can fool even the most informed shoppers.

It is done on purpose. “If the marketing is done well, it slips through the radar of critical thinking,” says Marion Nestle, PhD, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University. She explains that the goal is to make you think “emotionally.” It appeals to your senses with key words. “Before you know it, you’ve picked up a box of junk masquerading as health food.”

Aren’t Food Packages Regulated?

While yes, health claims are under the arm of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and must be approved and backed up by science, not all offenders use health claims. In many cases, there is a margin of truth and a manipulated interpretation that makes it misleading.

“Manufacturers use colorful images, product names, and claims that give the food a ‘health halo,’” says Amy Keating, RD, a Consumer Reports nutritionist. “In some cases, the claims are factually true, but still can be quite misleading.”

The following misleading food labels are some of the most widely used; listed in no particular order.

Cholesterol Free

You may have noticed large labeling stating “cholesterol free” on certain packages. When you look at the nutritional facts label on the back, the product does indeed have 0 mg cholesterol.

Sometimes, this “cholesterol free” statement can be found on foods that would not have cholesterol to begin with. Plant-based foods like peanut butter or vegetable oil would never contain cholesterol.

However, when a “cholesterol free” peanut butter or “cholesterol free” vegetable oil is placed next to a similar product without that label, it may lead you to believe it is healthier than that alternative.

Made with Real Fruit or Real Vegetables

Another misleading label proclaims made with real fruit or real vegetables. This claim must also contain a sliver of truth. It likely contains some form of real fruit or vegetable. But in what quantity?

A quick way to determine this is to look at the Nutritional Facts panel on the package. The ingredients must be listed in order of weight. The higher up in the list, the more of the ingredient is included in the package.

“The first few [ingredients] are the only ones that really count,” says Nestle. If the fruit or vegetable ranks lower than the first five, “there’s probably not much of it in the product.”

Consumer Reports highlights Simply Lay’s Veggie Poppables as a great example. The products claims “made with real veggies” boldly on the package. But upon closer inspection, the only “vegetables” listed on the Nutritional Facts panel are spinach and tomato powders. And those rank 10th and 11th on the ingredients list.

Welch’s Fruit Snacks is another example of misleading products labels in indicating “fruit is our 1st ingredient.” This is an absolutely true statement. However, the second and third ingredients are corn syrup and sugar, which likely cancel out any real benefit from the fruit contained in the product.

Lightly Sweet

Looking at a package, the words “lightly sweet” imply that while there is sugar, it is likely not very much. However, that could not be further from the truth in many cases.

Morning Summit cereal, for example, proudly displays the label “lightly sweetened.” It contains 14 grams of added sugar.

“Slightly Sweet” Gold Peak iced tea sounds like it wouldn’t have much sugar either. After all, it isn’t sweet tea. It is only slightly sweet. This one contains 16 grams of added sugars in just a 12 ounce serving!

Sugar free, reduced sugar, and no added sugars are the only claims managed by the FDA. For a product to be labeled as “sugar free,” it must contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar. “Reduced sugar” must contain at least 25% less sugar than a comparable product. “No added sugars” must contain no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient in the food.


Keto is a big buzz word that essentially means it contains little or no carbohydrates or added sugars. Unfortunately, this does not mean the product is healthy. In fact, many of these products contain isolated proteins or sugar alcohols. The safety of these manufactured sweeteners has been questioned for long-term use.

Additionally, to make some of the products “keto,” they must be ultra processed, often having a negative impact on nutrition.

Gluten Free Label

Some people must be vigilant in avoiding gluten. Those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity must avoid this.

However, for most consumers, there is no real health reason to avoid gluten. In fact, gluten-free alternatives to certain products can be a less healthy choice. In some cases, they may be lower in fiber or contain gums and other additives. This takes a normally healthy product and transforms it into something listed in the ultra processed food category.

Uncured Doesn’t Always Mean Uncured

When it comes to the choice of cured and uncured, cured gets a bad rap. Synthetic nitrates and nitrites are the primary concern, as they increase risks of some cancers.

However, “uncured” products generally undergo another type of curing process. But instead of using synthetic nitrates and nitrites, celery seed powder or some other natural source of nitrates and nitrites are used.

“Uncured meats aren’t better for you,” Keating says. Even naturally derived nitrates and nitrites have the same effects on the human body. However, when placed side by side, a package stating it is uncured may influence your buying habits.

Your best bet is to avoid processed meats altogether or consume in moderation.

What Misleading Food Labels Have You Observed While Shopping?

This is by no means a conclusive list. Creative advertising is what helps influence buying behaviors. Many food manufacturers have teams of experts analyzing shopper psychology to tap into the way our minds think. Think about what other misleading food labels you have observed while shopping while on your next trip to the grocery store.

Stay in Touch with Make Food Safe!

If you’d like to know more about food safety topics in the news, like “Top 6 Misleading Food Labels According to Consumer Reports,” check out the Make Food Safe Blog. We regularly update trending topics, foodborne infections in the news, recalls, and more! Stay tuned for quality information to help keep your family safe, while The Lange Law Firm, PLLC strives to Make Food Safe!

By: Heather Van Tassell (contributing writer, non-lawyer)