Don’t fall for food label gotchas!

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- A shopping market shocker! The On Your Side Investigators discovered you could be paying a higher price for foods that seem healthier or supposedly have a better quality, but really contain the same old ingredients.

You find the terms at nearly every turn in the supermarket, those such as natural, real and simple.

In fact, there's so much to choose from, it's almost dizzying and even confusing for a savvy shopper.

"We see those terms and we think it's better for me, I don't have much time, so I'll grab that item, I'll pay more, because it's a better for me item," Linda Pennington, a registered dietitian and Vice President of Dietitian Associates, said.

What you may not know is you're likely wasting money on those words!

Pennington said, "They're trying to grab your attention and they know there are certain buzzwords."

WREG asked Pennington to help break down some of the new label lingo to find out what the terms mean, and if they're really regulated.

One you've probably seen recently is artisan, and not just on cheese and bread.  The On Your Side Investigators found it on everything from pasta sauce to boxed crackers.

"Most consumers think of artisan as hand-crafted, a master craftsman created that or created some of the key ingredients, but there are no guidelines so it's more of a marketing term," Pennington said of those mass-produced items.

Watch out for other food label gotchas like real, fresh, simple, premium and even natural.

WREG showed Pennington a box of pancake mix with the term "all natural" on the front.

She said, "There's no universal definition on that, 'all natural'."

The word "natural" is regulated when it comes to meat and poultry (see below), but Pennington says even those guidelines are loose.

Consumer Reports Wants to Ban the Term "Natural"

Also, be mindful of terms that do have a true designation, but are used in certain circumstances to simply grab attention.

For example, WREG found a bottle of organic juice that also reads gluten free. It may sound healthier, but most 100-percent juice is gluten-free anyway, so you're not getting anything extra special.

What's Gluten Free All About?

Pennington says the same is true for the term "hormone free" when used on pork and poultry.

"You might pick up a sliced ham and it says hormone free and then in small letters it says all pork in the United States is hormone free because it's a regulation and it has to be."

Pennington says there are terms with specific government guidelines like free, low, reduced or less, and they're even broken down by food category.

She explained, "If a salad dressing says fat free, then you can expect it to have less than 0.5 grams of fat."

However, even these designations can seem confusing.

Pennington explained a label for 99 percent Fat Free on a can of broth.

"So see they've got 0.5 grams so they're saying it's 99 percent fat free, that's kind of twisting it."

There are also specific labels to look for, particularly on meat, poultry and eggs, that do have enforcement behind them.

Those include Certified Organic and no-antibiotics, but be careful of twists like "anti-biotic free."

While not by a government agency, the term Certified Humane Raised/Handled is also regulated.

Unfortunately, lots of other claims on those egg cartons mean nothing.

Unscrambling the egg carton terms

Consumers WREG spoke with say they ignore the hype.

"I look at calories and price, and I think that there's a lot of hype that results from people being ill informed about the science behind things," said Memphis resident Genna Dilworth.

Harold Eberhart said, "I read the ingredients on the back and go from there."

Pennington says if you're really looking to eat healthy, shop the grocery store perimeter where for the most part, you don't need a label to tell you the food is fresh!

"Looking for foods that you know to begin with and then remembering that the manufacturer is trying to sell you a product and they want it to be as alluring as possible."

Terms to Ignore

  • Artisanal
  • Real
  • Fresh
  • Simple
  • Premium
  • Natural (except for meats, and experts say even that's questionable)
  • Chemical Free-USDA says this term is not allowed to be used on a label.

Look at these Labels

  • Organic-Food contains 95 percent or more organic content
  • Certified-USDA has evaluated the meat product for class, grade or other quality characteristics.  When used in other circumstances, the term must be associated with the agency responsible for the certification process.
  • Free Range/Free Roaming-Producers must demonstrate that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.
  • Fresh Poultry-Whole poultry and cuts have never been below 26 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Natural-The product contains no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.
  • No Hormones-Hormones aren't allowed in the raising of hogs or poultry, therefore the term "no hormones added" can't be used on pork and poultry labels unless followed by, "federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."
  • No Antibiotics-Can be used on meat and poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided that animals were raised without antibiotics.
  • See other terms for meat and poultry here


  • Hard Truths

    Kroger routinely labels products like coffee creamer as “sugar-free”. There are other examples, but I fell for this one for years.

    Guess what? The creamer is full of corn syrup — first ingredient listed.

    Corn syrup = corn sugar, the WORST kind.

    • canadianwhiskeygirl

      I wonder why they label It sugar free when Its major Ingred Is corn syrup. labels on food anymore Is so mIsleadIng

  • Hard Truths

    Please follow up on this story. Supermarkets routinely use weasel words to confuse the consumer. It’s not just Kroger. They’re just the ones I caught.

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