16 Most Misleading Food Labels

Wording like "sugar-free" and "made with real fruit" can easily be misunderstood.

Labels and phrases on food can help people make healthy choices or decisions about the food they want. However, some labels—like "all-natural" and "made from real fruit"—may not tell the whole story of what's included in foods and drinks.

Here's a list of the 16 most common—and most misleading—phrases manufacturers use on food, with advice on how to read food labels when making supermarket choices.

Cholesterol-Free Labels

Cholesterol-free doesn't always mean no cholesterol. Cholesterol-free products must either contain no cholesterol or so little cholesterol that the amount doesn't affect your body. Low-cholesterol products have 20 milligrams or less per serving. Foods that say "reduced" or "less cholesterol" need at least 25% less than comparable products.

The liver makes cholesterol, meaning only animal products like meat, dairy, eggs, and butter can contain it. So while plant-based products may tout a cholesterol-free status, there's no extra benefit compared to other vegetable oils.

Non-tropical plant-based oils—ones like corn, olive, and sunflower oils—don't contain cholesterol or contribute to increased levels of bad cholesterol, aka low-density lipoprotein (LDL). However, tropical oils like coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils can lead to increased LDL because they have saturated fat.

Immunity Booster Labeling

The issue with immunity booster labels is that you can't boost your immunity or immune system. Also, having an immune system that works too well can result in the development of autoimmune diseases.

Still, some products may contain certain vitamins that help immune system functioning, like vitamin A. As a result, companies can use words like "immunity blend" or "supports the immune system." Those companies must walk a fine line here, though. They cannot randomly put health claims, like suggesting a product can boost immunity, on the product.

A health claim basically suggests that a food substance reduces the risk of a health condition. A company adding a health claim to a label can trigger intense scrutiny from the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

There's also no evidence to suggest supplements have immune-boosting capabilities. Researchers have found that information about so-called immunity boosters don't refer to how to make the immune system work better. The information is about avoiding deficiencies in the immune system.

Ingredient Phrases

Some food labels may contain wording like 'gluten-free" or "2% milk," but there's more to consider about the ingredient contents.


Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat or rye. It can wreak havoc on the health of those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

Gluten-free products are becoming easier to find, which is great for those with gluten intolerance. For everyone else, though, there's no advantage to buying them. One study found that, in a comparison of 423 gluten-free products to 337 similar products with gluten, the gluten-free products were more expensive and:

  • Contained less protein and fiber
  • Contained higher saturated fat, carb, and salt content

Made With Real Fruit

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a public health agency under the USDA, has to approve labels that include fruit claims, like "made with real fruit." Even if the label is on the box, however, look at the ingredients to find out what fruit the label references.

Adding pictures of fruit on packaging or including some name variation suggesting fruit is in a product can influence a person's decision to get the product. However, the product claiming to be made with real fruit may not contain much. It also may not have any fruit types pictured on the box.


When shopping for healthy bread and crackers, look for the words "whole grain" or "100% whole wheat." It's not enough if it says "multigrain" or "made with whole grain." Some products with multigrain or made with whole grain labels may contain mostly refined grains.

Whole grains—which include popcorn, brown rice, and oatmeal—have more fiber and other nutrients than those that have been refined. Refined grains go through a process that strips away the healthiest portions of the grain.

Don't go by color alone: Some darker breads have caramel coloring that is only there to improve the product's visual appearance.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are parts of fats used for energy and tissue growth. They can be found in foods and supplements and come in three main types:

  • Eicosapentaenoic (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic (DHA)
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

Some labels may include omega-3 fatty acids, but the type of fatty acids matters. ALA doesn't have the proven benefit for the heart as EPA and DHA. Some foods, such as flax seeds, are higher in ALA than EPA and DHA.

Eggs may contain omega-3 if chickens are fed flax seed or fish oil and can be good for your heart health if eaten in moderation. However, their cardiovascular benefits are limited because of their cholesterol content.

2% Milk

You may think 2% milk sounds great since it's such a low number. Most people don't realize that whole milk contains only 3.25% fat.

So 2% milk contains less fat than regular milk but not that much. It isn't technically considered low fat. Only 1% milk and fat-free—also called skim milk, which has less than 0.5% fat—meet that standard.

However, 2% milk may say "reduced fat" because it has at least 25% less fat than regular milk. Still, the recommendation is that adults choose 1% or fat-free over other types of milk.

Labels Related to Fat Content

Fats aren't bad for your diet; they are a nutrient that serves as one source of energy. You just have to know which fats to eat and eat all dietary fats in moderation. That's where the following labels may present an issue.


Saturated and trans fats can affect your cholesterol levels by raising LDL cholesterol. With concerns about saturated and trans fat, the market was flooded with products that touted their fat-free status.

Some fat-free foods—like vanilla frozen yogurt—may have nearly as many calories as full-fat versions. Also, like cholesterol-free foods, fat-free foods may not contain fat or just a very little amount.


A food label may say a product, such as olive oil, is "light," but it may refer to the flavor, texture, or color rather than the ingredients. Compared to similar products, a product can be considered light when calories, fat, or sodium are 50% less.

Zero Trans Fat

Trans fat is bad for your heart, and the ideal intake is zero. Yet products that say no trans fat can contain less than 0.5 grams per serving.

Check for words on the ingredient list, such as hydrogenated oils and shortening, which mean trans fat is still present. Some products often contain trans fat, including:

  • Commercially baked goods, like cakes and cookies
  • Fried and battered foods
  • Refrigerated dough

Labels Related to Sugar Content

Sugar is best eaten in moderation, which means that you don't have to give it up completely. Labels like "no sugar added" can help you decide on the choices you make, but it's important to check the packaging carefully.

Lightly Sweetened

Although the FDA has definitions for terms like "reduced sugar," "no added sugar," and "sugar-free," the term "lightly sweetened" isn't defined.

If a product has this phrase, look at the nutritional label for the actual sugar content. The goal is to consume a total amount of added sugar that makes up less than 10% of the calories you need daily.

No Sugar Added

Carbohydrates—which can be simple sugars or more complex starches—raise blood sugar. If someone is trying to prevent or manage diabetes, they may consider eating foods labeled no sugar added.

However, "no sugar added" doesn't mean a product is calorie-, carbohydrate-, or even sugar-free. The phrase just means that sugar or ingredients containing sugar weren't added in the food processing or packaging.

Sugar Free

Swapping high-sugar foods for ones designated as "sugar-free" can be a way to reduce your sugar intake. However, the "sugar-free" label is for products with less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.

Sugar-free products, like chewing gum, still contain calories. They may have sugar alcohols like mannitol, xylitol, or sorbitol, which are lower in calories—roughly two calories per gram.

Also, a sugar-free label does not indicate carb content. The label doesn't mean carb-free or that a particular food or drink has a lower carb content.

When looking at sugar-free products, compare labels. This will help you determine any differences between those and the same or similar products with regular sugar content.

Natural or Organic Phrases

The use of "natural," "organic," and "free range" terms on packages are more about the farming and processing of food.

All Natural

"Natural" or "all-natural" labeling is not officially defined—though, food makers won't get in trouble if the labeled food doesn't contain added colors, artificial flavors, or anything synthetic. That means there's room for interpretation.

If artificial ingredients and additional colors are not put into meat or poultry, "natural" can be used on their labels. The caveat is that products must go through minimal processing and provide an explanation for the "natural" label.

Free Range

Although a food label may say "free-range chicken," it doesn't mean chickens were outdoors the entire time.

There are no requirements for outdoor access amount, duration, and quality. At a minimum, for something to have a "free-range" label, the chickens must:

  • Be able to roam inside indoor houses
  • Have access to both fresh food and water
  • Have constant outdoor access, which may or may not be fenced or netting-covered


Though you may find some form of the word "organic" on product packaging, the labels stand for different things. There are four USDA organic labels:

  • 100% organic: All of the ingredients are organic.
  • Organic: 95% or more of the ingredients must have been grown or processed without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, among other standards
  • Made with organic ingredients: Products must have a minimum of 70% of all ingredients that meet the standard.
  • Specific organic ingredient listings: Specific ingredients meet the organic standard in products with less than 70% organic ingredients.

Organic foods are free of preservatives and artificial ingredients, but keep in mind that organic is not synonymous with healthy. An organic label is a stamp of how foods are farmed or processed but does not guarantee nutrients or nutritional value.

Serving Size Labeling

Serving sizes on labels refer to how much food a person usually eats at a time. However, they don’t stand for how much people need to eat, and sometimes a food package may have multiple servings instead of only one.

Look at the packaging for products you buy, especially the ones you frequently get, for any serving size changes. Some products may increase or decrease serving sizes, which affects the nutritional content of a single food or drink serving.

A Quick Review

There are many labels on food and drink packaging, such as "all-natural," "cholesterol-free," and "sugar-free." Some labels can be misleading if you're unfamiliar with what certain phrases mean, like "organic" referring to food processing and not nutritional value. However, you can decide what you want and how much by understanding nutritional labels and carefully reading ingredient lists.

Was this page helpful?
36 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes - food labels.

  2. American Cancer Society. Understanding food terms.

  3. American Heart Association. What is cholesterol?

  4. MedlinePlus. Immune response.

  5. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin A and carotenoids - fact sheet for health professionals.

  6. US Food and Drug Administration. Label claims for conventional foods and dietary supplements.

  7. Aman F, Masood S. How nutrition can help to fight against COVID-19 pandemic: COVID-19 and dietPak J Med Sci. 2020;36(COVID19-S4). doi:10.12669/pjms.36.COVID19-S4.2776

  8. Cassa Macedo A, Oliveira Vilela de Faria A, Ghezzi P. Boosting the immune system, from science to myth: analysis the infosphere with GoogleFront Med. 2019;6:165. doi:10.3389/fmed.2019.00165

  9. MedlinePlus. Learn about gluten-free diets.

  10. Myhrstad MCW, Slydahl M, Hellmann M, et al. Nutritional quality and costs of gluten-free products: a case-control study of food products on the Norwegian marked. Food & Nutrition Research. 2021;65. doi:10.29219/fnr.v65.6121

  11. Food Safety and Inspection Service. FSIS Compliance guideline for label approval.

  12. Heller R, Martin-Biggers J, Berhaupt-Glickstein A, Quick V, Byrd-Bredbenner C. Fruit-related terms and images on food packages and advertisements affect children’s perceptions of foods’ fruit contentPublic Health Nutrition. 2015;18(15):2722-2728. doi:10.1017/S1368980015000701

  13. Wilde P, Pomeranz JL, Lizewski LJ, Zhang FF. Consumer confusion about wholegrain content and healthfulness in product labels: a discrete choice experiment and comprehension assessmentPublic Health Nutr. 2020;23(18):3324-3331. doi:10.1017/S1368980020001688

  14. American Heart Association. Whole grains, refined grains, and dietary fiber.

  15. Sengar G, Sharma HK. Food caramels: a reviewJ Food Sci Technol. 2014;51(9):1686-1696. doi:10.1007/s13197-012-0633-z

  16. Office of Dietary Supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids - fact sheet for consumers.

  17. MedlinePlus. Omega-3 fats - good for your heart.

  18. Drouin-Chartier JP, Chen S, Li Y, et al. Egg consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease: three large prospective US cohort studies, systematic review, and updated meta-analysisBMJ. 2020;368:m513. doi:10.1136/bmj.m513

  19. Khan SA, Khan A, Khan SA, Beg MA, Ali A, Damanhouri G. Comparative study of fatty-acid composition of table eggs from the Jeddah food market and effect of value addition in omega-3 bio-fortified eggsSaudi J Biol Sci. 2017;24(4):929-935. doi:10.1016/j.sjbs.2015.11.001

  20. US Department of Agriculture. Milk, whole, 3.25% milkfat, with added vitamin D.

  21. American Cancer Society. Low-fat foods.

  22. American Heart Association. Dairy products - milk, yogurt, and cheese.

  23. MedlinePlus. Dietary fats explained.

  24. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Fat-free versus regular calorie consumption.

  25. MedlinePlus. Facts about trans fats.

  26. American Heart Association. What's the difference between sugar free and no added sugar?

  27. US Department of Agriculture. Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.

  28. American Diabetes Association. Get smart on carbs.

  29. American Academy of Family Physicians. Sugar substitutes.

  30. American Diabetes Association. Get to know carbs.

  31. US Food and Drug Administration. Use of the term natural on food labeling.

  32. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Understanding food marketing terms.

  33. US Department of Agriculture. Questions and answers - USDA shell egg grading service.

  34. US Department of Agriculture. Labeling organic products.

  35. American Academy of Family Physicians. Organic foods: what you need to know.

  36. US Food and Drug Administration. Serving size updates on the new nutrition facts label.

Related Articles