5 Sneaky Supermarket Labeling Tricks

by guest blogger Tyler Graham, coauthor of The Happiness Diet

The Happiness Diet is all about eating the right whole foods for a slimmer, sexier, and happier you. But no matter how one slices it, processed foods have appeal, and people do find them convenient. The problem is that thanks to tricky food marketing, some of the unhealthiest options appear to be the healthiest. Here are five of the most popular labeling tricks to avoid.


These fats are created when liquid vegetable oils are made solid at room temperature. Studies show a strong link between the consumption of trans fats and an increase in bad (LDL) cholesterol, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and depression. As manufacturers scramble to reformulate their foods, they’ve started putting “trans fat free” claims on their packages, which mean the product contains half a gram of trans fats or less per serving. But under those regulations, something like a standard box of Ritz Crackers still contains 14 grams of trans fat. It’s the same with potato chips, cookies, and other baked goods. This loophole is reason enough to forgo processed foods all together.


Ninety-nine times out of a hundred this is an absolutely worthwhile term to seek out. It means the product you’re purchasing is free of synthetic pesticides, hormones, and other nasty chemicals that have been linked to brain disorders, weight gain, and a laundry list of problems. But when it comes to farmed fish—namely farmed salmon—this term is meaningless. The farmers may use chemicals to manage parasites and feed their fish nonorganic food, and those pollutants can ultimately end up in the water or in your body. Studies have shown that farmed organic salmon is loaded with PCBs and dioxins. An Indiana University report recommended eating no more than three meals of Scottish salmon per year if you want to avoid cancer.


You might see this claim on a bottle of a seemingly healthy brand of lemonade like Newman’s Own. Unfortunately, an eight-ounce serving of the aforementioned has 18 grams of sugar—that’s four fattening tablespoons of sugar per glass. This phrase is meaningless because it’s unregulated.


This is another unregulated term. “Made with” could mean as little as 1/100th of 1 percent. If you’re looking for whole wheat bread, check the ingredient list. Items are ranked from most to least. “Whole wheat flour” should be the first ingredient.


If you’ve ever wondered why you’ve seen this on candy packaging, it’s because this label is completely meaningless and unregulated. The only time it’s enforced is in the case of meat and poultry, and then it applies only to the finished product. It means that after slaughter meat and poultry must contain “no artificial ingredient or added color” and be “only minimally processed,” but there’s no restriction on what chemicals and hormones animals received while they were alive. And as we know, residues of these things can end up in your dinner.

Tyler Graham is the coauthor of The Happiness Diet. Previously, he served as the health and environment editor of O, The Oprah Magazine, the nutrition editor at Prevention, and the environment editor at Best Life. He recently launched a men’s health section at Details magazine.



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6 Responses to 5 Sneaky Supermarket Labeling Tricks

  1. Debra Henn February 22, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    Thank you so much for this invaluable information!!! I swear THEY are trying to kill us!!!!

  2. patti February 23, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    I agree Debra!! Since January I have only been eating veggies & fruits.. nuts & seeds & organic.. NOTHING out of a box or bottle!!

  3. nancy July 10, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    How about “MSG Free” foods which still contain processed free glutamic acid, the ingredient in MSG that causes the dreaded reactions we all enjoy.

  4. GSI April 2, 2015 at 1:25 am #

    I agree – since the grocery store and the USDA won’t educate us we will have to educate ourselves!

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