How Manufacturers Use Food Labels to Deceive Grocery Shoppers

Since the average American grocery store stocks 42,686 items, but the average customer only spends $35.01 per visit, manufacturers are in intense competition to get you to choose their foods.

Some use nutrition to sell their food, while others use healthy-sounding marketing lingo (like “guilt free") that has no legal or scientific meaning.

According to a Harris Poll of 2,266 U.S. adults surveyed last month, Americans sometimes succumb to food marketing jargon when trying to eat healthy.

There are many phrases used in food labeling—some that are defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and some that are not—that jump out to certain consumers.

Get a Better Handle on Food Labels with These Tips »

‘Natural’ Isn’t Always What It Seems

A major culprit in food labeling gimmicks is the word “natural.”

While it sounds wholesome, the FDA has yet to establish a definition for the term. The same goes for terms like “low sugar.” The sweeteners in "low sugar" foods can come from other substances like high fructose corn syrup.

Still, more than 60 percent of people said that they let terms like “100% natural” and “low sugar” guide their buying decisions.

The majority of Americans—76 percent, to be exact—aren’t fooled when a food sells itself as “guilt free.” Since the claim has no legal meaning, it’s a good sign that few people use it to guide their food buying decisions.

Seventy-six percent of those polled also see the term “made with,” as in “made with whole grains,” or “made with real fruit,” as a helpful guide to eating healthier. The problem is that this label can apply to even the smallest amount of said ingredient.

The term “fresh,” however, legally means that the product has never been frozen or warmed and contains zero preservatives. A refreshing 73 percent of Americans use this term when deciding to eat healthier.

The Harris Poll also found that 57 percent of consumers use “reduced calories” or “reduced fat,” and 45 percent use “light” as health barometers. That’s good, considering that these are all terms with strict definitions based on FDA guidelines.

Learn More About the New FDA Food Labels »

Before You Get to the Checkout Line

When considering cost, 52 percent of Americans polled rated it as "very important," and 49 percent said it’s the most important factor when buying food. Cost was the most important factor, followed by fat, sugar, sodium, and calorie content.

While many people believe in the old adage “you get what you pay for,” sometimes you’re paying extra for nothing.

Previous research from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab examined the “health halo effect,” or how much more people are willing to pay for food they believe is healthy.

The researchers had 115 shoppers evaluate six food samples: two kinds each of cookies, potato chips, and yogurt. Some were labeled “organic” while others were labeled “regular.” The catch was all of the foods were identical.

The majority of people said the “organic” foods were more nutritious, lower in fat, and higher in fiber than the "regular" foods. They were also willing to pay up to 23.4 percent more for the food labeled “organic.”

Read More About the ‘Health Halo’ Over Our Foods »