Marketing Tricks on Food Labels


This week I have been thinking over and over, “What topic should I write about in our blog?” and then the topic literally presented itself.  A couple of days ago my best friend/next door neighbor, asked if I was interested in having dinner with her. She made some extra portions and didn’t want them to go to waste. Well it didn’t take me long to say yes, a few seconds later I was knocking on her door and enjoying a delicious meal with great company!  While I was eating with her, she reached for a bag of chips and asked, “Can I get your opinion on these chips I just bought at the health food store, tell me what you think about them”?  

I glanced at the front of the bag, it was a brand of chips I was not familiar with, and started analyzing like any other dietitian would do. I looked at the words they placed so big on the front of the packaging “Organic”, “Gluten Free”, “Corn Free”, “Vegetable Chips”.  I thought to myself, these shouldn’t be too bad, it had a lot of healthy claims on the front. 

Then, I turned the bag over, looked at the nutrition facts label, and I was shocked with how many calories 10 chips contained had AND from those calories, how many came from fat.  After figuring out the math, I asked my friend, “Did you know almost half the calories from these chips are from fat!?!”  She had no idea!! My friend was a victim of successful nutrition marketing!

I started to dig into some research journals to determine what facts were out there on nutrition marketing.
I came across a great journal that discussed how nutrition marketing can present itself, to the average consumer, and just what the truth is about these marketing strategies. I quickly pinpointed some of the things the article shared below.

  • 56,000 food labels were reviewed at 4 local grocery stores in North Dakota. From those 56,000 labels, 49% (27,440) of them had some type of nutrition marketing on the label (i.e. “nutrient content claims”, “statement of facts”)
  • From the 27,440 labels that had nutrition marketing, 13,171 were high in saturated fat, sodium, and/or sugar.
  • From the 27,440 labels that had nutrition marketing, 19,482 were marketed to children. From those 11,494 were high in saturated fat, sodium, and/or sugar.
  • Most common used nutrition marketing statements were “good source of calcium”, “reduced/low/fat free”, and “food company’s health symbol”.

Colby S, Jonson L. Nutrition Marketing on Foods Labels. Journal of Nutr Edu and Behavior. 2010;42(2):92-98


So, let’s take a second and go back to the vegetable chips my friend purchased. Let’s analyze the food nutrition facts label a little more. I decided to grab a bag of a very well-known brand of chips that most kids and adults eat at birthday parties or BBQ’s.  I concluded my findings below. Check out how similar the labels look. On the left is the well-known brand of chips and on the right is the health food vegetable chips.  


To my surprise, there was no difference in: calories/serving of 10-11 chips, calories from fat (both were ~46% of calories from fat), total carbohydrates, and the amount of protein. The only difference between the nutrition facts label were the saturated fat, with the well-known brand being just 0.5 gm more in saturated fat compared to the organic vegetable chips, and the amount of sodium (which the well-known brand of chips had 65% more sodium than vegetable chips).  In addition, the organic vegetable chips had more vitamins/minerals (A, C, and Calcium) compared to the well-known brand and contained real vegetable ingredients instead of processed ingredients found within the well-known brand.

PLEASE NOTE: This information is not to steer you away from choosing healthier food options, I can go on and on (literally another Blog I can write), on why it is best to choose more natural food products. However, this blog is just to educate you on how nutrition marketing can be tricky, and challenging, when it comes to deciding on which product to purchase that meet your personal dietary needs. 

Below are some phrases that you may see on some packaging labels, along with guidelines for that nutrition marketing claim.

  • Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
  • Low cholesterol: 20 milligrams or less and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving
  • Reduced: At least 25 percent less of the specified nutrient or calories than the usual product
  • Good source of: Provides at least 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving
  • Calorie free: Less than five calories per serving
  • Fat free/sugar free: Less than ½ gram of fat or sugar per serving
  • Low sodium: 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving
  • High in: Provides 20 percent or more of the Daily Value of a specified nutrient per serving

“Natural” Claim
Currently, no formal definition for the use of "natural" on food labels has been issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or U.S. Department of Agriculture. FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. USDA allows the use of the term "natural" to be used in meat and poultry labeling on products that contain no artificial ingredients or added color.

"Whole" Claim
By most definitions, whole foods include fresh produce, dairy, whole grains, meat and fish; meaning any food that appears in its most pure form with minimal processing.

As defined by the USDA, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic plant foods are produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.

There are three levels of organic claims for food:

  • 100-Percent Organic: Products that are completely organic or made of only organic ingredients qualify for this claim and a USDA?Organic seal.
  • Organic: Products in which at least 95 percent of its ingredients are organic qualify for this claim and a USDA?Organic seal.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: These are food products in which at least 70 percent of ingredients are certified organic. The USDA organic seal cannot be used but "made with organic ingredients" may appear on its packaging.

If you would like to read more about how to understand a nutrition facts label, here is a great link to check out.

Need more help?  One of our dietitians here would love to sit down with you and your family to educate more on food labels, healthy eating, and/or any nutrition and exercise goal you would like to achieve.  Give us a call at 972-422-9180 to schedule a time to meet up soon!

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