MYTH: Food Labels Help Consumers

Food labels and packaging, much like advertisements, can be very deceiving. Here are a few of Jillian's rules to help you decode what's really in your packaged foods.

The Truth: As much as I hate to say it, the truth is that food labels and ingredient lists are used by manufacturers to make their products seem healthier than they are to consumers.

Don’t be fooled by meaningless phrases, like “all natural” and “heart healthy.” There are a lot of buzzwords that companies throw around these days to deceive consumers into thinking they are better quality than they are. For example, some people think the terms “all natural” and “organic” are interchangeable, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The word natural has no regulatory meaning, however companies have to go through an extensive approval process to be granted certified organic status. Food manufacturers can slap an “all-natural” label on a product even when the ingredients are not natural at all. Same goes for “heart healthy,” which is another term that is pasted all over food labels. You will typically see that used on packaging for products that contain corn oil, which has been linked to obesity and high cholesterol. Look extra closely at any labels that contain these phrases.

Zero calories doesn’t always mean zero calories. Years and years ago, before I really learned how to read food labels, I learned a valuable lesson about interpreting them. I was obsessed with using a product that said it had zero calories per serving. I would spray it on everything. One day, I started reading the nutrition label a bit more closely and decided to call the company to figure out what it all meant. I’ll quickly sum up what I learned: There were .9 calories in one spray and one serving size was one spray, so they were legally able to round down and say it was zero calories and zero grams of trans fats, even though there were 1,200 calories in that tiny bottle! Lesson learned – if a claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

When foods are fortified with nutrients, it doesn’t make them any healthier. You hear it on commercials or read it in advertisements online — “Fortified with fiber, omega-3s…” and more. What does it really mean? A lot of times the nutrients they’re using to ‘fortify’ your foods are not that great for you. Here’s one example: Inulin is a cheap fiber processed from chicory root. A product may claim since it’s ‘fortified’ with inulin, it will help you fulfill your dietary fiber quota. Yet studies have shown that inulin doesn’t lower cholesterol or help you feel full like 100 percent whole grain fiber does. There are plenty of other examples of this — I could go on and on! So just remember that fortified foods are usually junk that’s been enriched with cheap versions of healthy nutrients to trick you.

The Bottom Line: Know your stuff! Keep the tips from this article in mind when you’re food shopping and look out for products that boast that they’re “Fortified with fiber” or have “Zero calories” and so on. Reading the actual ingredients will give you a good idea of what's actually healthy and what isn't.

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