While healthy eating is a goal for many Americans, it can be hard to know exactly what this entails. Supermarkets are full of foods with labels promising “clean” this, or “healthy” that’, creating a minefield of messaging that can be difficult to maneuver.

Oftentimes food labels are nothing more than marketing tactics designed to convince consumers the product is healthy, or at least, better than the alternative. But a closer look shows than many of these labels really don’t mean much at all. Here are 5 food labels that might sound healthy, but actually have a different meaning when grocery shopping.


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Part of a Healthy/Complete/Nourishing Breakfast

Some variation of this slogan is a common fixture on the packaging of children’s cereals and other processed foods, along with an illustration of whatever said food may be, and a piece of fruit, a glass of water, and maybe a side of protein. Here’s the thing: if the product in question is in fact part of a healthy breakfast, it may not be the “healthy” part. Next.

Cage-Free

According to USDA Guidelines, eggs “labeled as cage-free must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” So, quite literally, they cannot be kept in cages. However, considering the guideline doesn’t specify how much space each chicken can get and allows for “cage-free” hens to be kept fully indoors, it doesn’t really mean anything at all.

A similar offender is “free-range,” which requires hens to have continuous access to outdoor space but does not specify how much space. While eggs may be a great source of nutrients, their labels are often nothing more than marketing wordplay.

Hormone Free/ No Hormones Added

This label, commonly found on just about every chicken and pork product in the grocery store, needs to be read a little closer. According to the USDA, “hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry.” So, pretty much all of it is hormone-free, and the per regulation the small print below this pointless claim likely says something along the lines of, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” So, while this claim is true, it is utterly unimpressive.

Low Fat/Reduced Fat/No Fat

To be fair, these products likely are lower in fat than their full-fat alternatives, but why remove the fat in the first place? The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) recommended by the US government for fat is 20%-35% of daily calories for adults over 18. Though not all sources of fat are nutritious, a healthy adult that isn’t adhering to a particular diet doesn’t need to worry about axing this macro completely; on the contrary, fat is officially recognized as an important part of a balanced diet. While the processed food this label is slapped on may indeed be unhealthy, taking the fat out of it probably doesn’t make it any better. It might even make you think, “What are they replacing the fat with?”

Vegan

If something is vegan, it simply does not contain animal products. While this label is very useful for individuals whose goal is to avoid eating such products, it does not in any way determine the nutritional value of the food and should not be read as “healthy.” Case study: Oreos are vegan.