Cracking the Code: Deciphering The Deceitful Marketing Language of Nutrition Labels

by Dr. David Minkoff April 11, 2019 10 min read

Athletic Female free diver under the water near the bottom.

The Disruptive Rise of the Health-Conscious Consumer

You’re smart about nutrition. You value your health and do your best to shop accordingly.

What’s interesting is that food product manufacturers know there are millions of people like you. (We say “food product” because much of the time what they sell is not really “food” and much more of a “product”)

They know consumers around the country are getting smarter about nutrition. They also know their products aren’t exactly “healthy.”

But unfortunately, instead of adapting and changing their products to reflect cutting edge health knowledge…

...instead of giving the market what it wants and needs...

Food product manufacturers resort to marketing trickery, deceptive labels, and word games to maintain their profit margins.

So here, we are going to pull back the curtain on deceptive food packaging and food label-doublespeak to empower you to make the best possible decisions for your health.

They can disguise the truth, but they cannot hide it.


Where to Look For The Truth

The packaging of a product is designed to catch your eye.

Those hearty earth-tone colors, the friendly fonts, the smooth logo –– everything you see at first glance is carefully designed to create a specific belief about what is inside that package.

It has nothing to do with truth. It has nothing to do with health. It has everything to do with perception.

If the label is clever enough, it hijacks your perceptions to make you believe this product is what you want to buy.

The packaging is the fake smile, the fishing lure, the gimmick: it cannot be trusted.

Therefore, to find the truth about a product it is critical to look at the one place they are legally required to show their hand and tell mostof the truth: the nutrition label.


What’s in a Name?

It’s no secret that “organic” is becoming more and more popular. “Food product” manufacturers know this too. They all try to capitalize on this by appearing to be healthy.

One way they do this is by using words that sound “organic” or “healthy” but do not mean anything. Here are just a few of the most common words food product manufacturers use to trick you:

  • Natural
  • Natural flavors
  • Healthy
  • Whole Grain
  • Light/Lite
  • No sugar added

Natural only means it was derived from something on the earth. Even motor oil is technically a “natural” product. Natural things can all be heavily processed, doused in chemicals, and altered to be quite unhealthy.

Natural flavors are often synthesized chemicals originally identified from some natural plant somewhere. Plus, food product manufacturers are legally by the FDA allowed to contain a disturbing multitude of “incidental” harmful substances without disclosure. “Natural flavors” are simply not good for you.

Healthy is written on everything from margarine to nitrate-laden factory farm meat, to sugary cereals. There is no “standard” meaning of healthy, so as a marketing word it cannot be trusted.

Whole grain just means it has the outer husk of the grain still on it. Truthfully, there is more fiber and potentially more nutrition there. Unfortunately, if that grain is sprayed with pesticides like roundup, that outer “healthy whole grain” husk is also the most toxic part of the grain and will do more harm to your body than good. Advertising “whole grain” is often a disguise to mask its non-organic origins. Learn more by reading this article.

Light/Lite means the product has been stripped of fat. Fat is an important macronutrient and makes food taste good. When they take out that fat, food product manufacturers try to make up for the lack of flavor by adding extra sugar, which drives inflammation, insulin insensitivity, and obesity.

No sugar added does not mean a product does not have sugar. It means they used other sources of sugar that are not technically “refined sugar” but have just as much of a negative effect on your body.

This is such an important topic, it deserves its own section, but before we get there let’s look at an example.


Caveat Emptor: Buyer Beware

Open Nature Multi-Grain Waffle Packaging - SAPP - Safeway argument - sodium acid pyrophosphate

So let’s look at this packaging for waffles. This actually got Safeway, the parent company of this brand, into quite a bit of legal trouble. Why? Because they included an additive called sodium acid pyrophosphate (SAPP), a chemical preservative.

Safeways’ legal team argued that because SAPP is derived from phosphoric acid, which in turn is derived and purified from phosphate rock, it was therefore completely natural.

Welcome to the legal world of food product manufacturers.

Sugar! Sugar! Sugar!

There are at least a dozen different names food product manufacturers use to cover-up what’s really in their packages.

First, to understand how they can do this, we need to look at what sugar really is.

There are 2 kinds of carbohydrates: simple and complex.

Simple carbohydrates are small sugar molecules that hit your bloodstream very fast, all at once. This creates an insulin spike, which then sets up the sugar crash. In small doses, this is a quick boost of energy. But too many simple carbohydrates over time make you fat, tired, and unhealthy. Fruit, most grains, honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, and, of course, refined sugars are all simple carbohydrates.

Complex carbohydrates are big chains of simple carbohydrates. They take longer to break down and slowly enter your bloodstream, which is much better for your body and for stable blood sugar levels. Sweet potatoes, quinoa, and beans are examples of complex carbohydrates.

But food product manufacturers are clever. They can hide sugar even in the ingredients list. So, let’s look at just a few of the most common words marketers and manufacturers use to hide the sugar-laden reality of their “food products”:

  • Brown rice syrup
  • Barley malt
  • Cane juice/cane sugar
  • Date Sugar
  • Dextrin
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Glucose
  • Golden syrup
  • HFCS (high fructose corn syrup)
  • Maltose
  • Malt Syrup
  • Mannose
  • Molasses
  • Muscovado
  • Palm Sugar
  • Sorghum
  • Turbinado
  • Coconut sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • Carob Syrup
  • Lactose
  • Sucanant
  • Maltodextrine
  • Beet sugar
Nature Valley Chewy Protein Nutrition Supplements Facts - eight different sugars

The closer you look, the more you will see how many “health foods” are absolutely full of sugar. Just look at this “healthy” protein bar:

In the ingredients, you find sugar, tapioca syrup, high maltose corn syrup, fructose, vegetable glycerine, rice maltodextrin, and dextrose.That is 8 different forms of sugar in a single bar.

And that’s not even looking at the unhealthy oils like palm oil, canola oil, and sunflower oil or the poor quality protein source of soy isolate (we’ll go deeper into soy protein in a minute).

The “health food” aisle of the grocery store will never quite look the same.


The Fake Sugar Work-Around

Many food product manufacturers try a different approach and use artificial sweeteners to make their “healthy” products taste better.

But there’s no free lunch with fake sugar.

Artificial sweeteners are often toxic and have dozens of hidden side effects, including digestive problems, gut dysbiosis, headaches, liver toxicity, kidney disease, tooth decay, inflammation, metabolic dysfunction, neurological damage, and more.

Here are just a few of the names to keep an eye out for and avoid:

  • Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal)
  • Saccharin (Sweet’n’Low)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)

And it doesn’t stop there.

There’s a whole new class of artificial sweeteners gaining in popularity called “sugar alcohols.” These are modified sugar molecules, including:

  • Maltitol
  • Erythritol
  • Xylitol (very common in gum and toothpaste)
  • Sorbitol
  • Mannitol
  • Isomalt

They taste sweet on your tongue but are poorly absorbed by your body. This means you believeyou get all the great taste without any of the calories.

But it’s not so simple.

Even though youcannot digest or absorb sugar alcohols, your gut bacteria can. Especially the “bad” bacteria. Depending on your particular gut flora, sugar alcohols can cause serious gastrointestinal distress: gas, bloating, diarrhea, and discomfort.

They can offset the delicate balance of the microbiome, leading to further health problems later on. Like many other synthetic health solutions, they create more problems than they “solve.”

The only sugar substitutes well-tolerated by the body we know of are stevia and monk-fruit. These are made directly by plants.


Nutrition Label Breakdown

Now that we can see through some of the word-tricks used by food manufacturers, let’s take a closer look at the nutrition label itself.

Doritos Nutrition Supplement Facts showing serving size example of 11 chips

Serving Size

This is at the top of the label and is one of the trickiest parts of the whole thing. All the other numbers in the nutrition are based on the serving size. So if it says “1g sugar” it means one gram of sugar per serving size.

The trick comes when a “serving size” is actually much smaller than the actual portion you may actually eat. Take a bag of Doritos chips, for example.

A “serving” of chips is only 10-12 chips. And realistically, how many of us actually count the number of chips when we dip our hand into the bag over and over and over?


This is a measure of how much “energy” is in a serving. But not all calories are equal, so this measure is deceptive. A calorie of trans-fats does far more damage than a calorie of protein. This is one of the difficult parts of calorie-restricted diets.

What kind of calories is often more important than how many.


Irresponsible food marketers made “fat” the bad guy in the 80s and 90s. It’s a convenient wordplay because “fat” in food is spelled the exact same way as the “fat” in your love handles, belly, or thighs.

But that’s just not how it works. Dietary fat is critical to your health, you need it for hundreds of biological functions. But, as with calories, not all fat is created equal. Let’s take look at the fats you can find on a nutrition label so you understand exactly what you’re getting.

Unsaturated fat is “healthy fat”. There are mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated, which means they either have one or more than one double bond, but it’s not too important to get hung up on this detail. This what people mean when they tell you to eat more “healthy fat”. It’s the kind of fat found in avocados, coconuts, nuts, and other plant sources.
Saturated Fatis generally found in animal products like meat, organ meat, or butter. There’s evidence both ways if this is good for your health or not, but it is unequivocally an excellent energy source. So long as it is from a good source –– many toxins like antibiotics and pesticides hide in animal fat –– and in moderation, you will be fine.
Trans Fator partially-hydrogenated fat/oil is something you want to avoid at all costs. This is the kind of fat in movie-theater popcorn and fast food deep fryers. This kind of fat has a much longer shelf-life, which is great for food product manufacturers. However, it behaves very differently in the body and leads to many well-documented health consequences, including heart disease, inflammation, arthritis, diabetes, and more.


%Daily Value (DV)

In the next part of the label, you see a bunch of numbers based on “%DV”. Let’s say a package of yogurt, for example, gives you get 20% DV of calcium.

DV is an average guideline established by the FDA that generalizes how much the average person needs to get every day.

Unfortunately, the FDA is not the impartial consumer-advocacy group we all wish they were. The FDA is highly political and deeply influenced by ties to big food industries. It’s safe to say they are not on top of the most cutting edge research for achieving optimal health.

You can use these numbers to assess if a product has legitimate nutritional value, but it’s not a wise idea to base your entire health and the relevance and validity of these numbers.


Cholesterol is an essential compound for a healthy body. It’s used to make hormones, cell membranes, and the myelin sheath that protects neurons. Just because something has cholesterol does not necessarily mean it is unhealthy.


We talk a lot about protein here at BodyHealth because one of the biggest myths in the health food industry is that all protein is created equal.

It is not.

Some protein sources of protein are very efficient. Others not so much.

Many health products like protein bars advertise “Now with 20g Protein!”

But most of the time, the protein is derived from soy or whey. These protein sources are not well-utilized by the body. In studies that investigated the Amino Acid Utilization (AAU) or Net Nitrogen Utilization (NNU), only 16% of the protein from soy and whey are actually used by the body to build protein.

And it’s not just efficiency.

Soy products are from GMO “round-up ready” plants and covered in more round-up than any other plant in the world!

That protein bar with 20g of protein? Your body only uses 3.2g of it. The rest goes to energy, stored in the fat cells and otherwise wasted, it does not go to building muscle. AND, if it’s soy-based, you get an extra dose of health-destroying poisons.

So let’s take a look at the popular “Power Bar” brand and see what’s really inside:

Power Bar Nutrition Facts Label Showing 20 grams of protein - really only equivalent to 3.2 grams of protein plus lots of added junk

Ingredients include: soy protein, caseinate (from milk), whey protein, maltitol syrup (sugar alcohol), chocolate flavored coating made from sugar, palm oil (bad oil), soy, cocoa, milk, and “natural flavor”), oligofructose (sugar), cane invert syrup (sugar), soy crisps, rice flour, barley malt extract (sugar), salt alkalized cocoa, water, high oleic canola oil (bad oil), soy lecithin, ground almonds, partially defatted peanut flour, and natural flour.


How to Navigate The Grocery Store

So what is a person to do with all of this? How can you shop confidently with all this deception and trickery?

The safest way is to stick to the outside of the grocery store with all the whole foods like organic vegetables and fruits, grass-fed meat, pasture-raised dairy, organic free-range eggs, and wild sustainably harvested (non-farmed) seafood.

“Grass-fed”, “organic”, “pasture raised”, and “wild harvested” all legally defined. You can rely on them to provide a degree of quality without the tampering of clever marketers or deceitful packaging.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t try to trick you. Let’s look at one more example.

Open Nature Packaging showing 100% natural but is anything but natural - example of deceitful marketing

It looks great, doesn’t it? Nice warm earth tones and friendly fonts. Says “Nature” and “Natural” right on the package! How could you go wrong?

Let’s look at the one on the left first. “Vegetarian fed” generally means “fed a diet of toxic glyphosate-enriched GMO corn”. The glyphosate saturating the genetically modified corn gets into the meat tissue and then into your body.

In addition, most livestock animals were never meant to live on a diet of grain. Chickens are meant to eat bugs, which are rich in protein and other micronutrients. Cows are supposed to eat grass, that’s how they are designed. When animals are fed diets they were never intended to live on, the meat itself contains less nutritional value.

The FDA has banned giving artificial hormones to livestock, so “no hormones” doesn’t actually mean anything. The living conditions of these chickens are generally abysmal, but this isn’t a moral issue. The living conditions of livestock have a powerful influence on the quality and nutritional value of the meat itself. It may look healthy, but a closer look reveals the opposite.


Self-Reliance and Empowered Judgement

Marketing and labeling word tricks will always evolve and shift in response to the public. Eventually, people will get wise to the word “natural” and clever marketers will find a new word.

Maybe it will be “organo-dynamic” or “bio-friendly” or something else.

But no matter what they come up with, if you understand how to read the nutrition label, you can always rest on our own empowered judgment.

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*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.