When I shop for groceries, personal care products and dietary supplements, I spend a lot of time studying the labels. In fact, I immediately turn to the back of the label, because the front is usually filled with misleading marketing language that doesn’t accurately reflect what’s inside.
The problem is that sometimes, the ingredients list and/or supplement facts panel also fail to accurately reflect what’s in the product — as I recently learned when I stumbled across a class-action lawsuit against Olli and P&G.
The two companies sell over-the-counter melatonin supplements. It turns out that each pill contained significantly more melatonin than indicated on the supplement facts panel, causing customers to overdose on the sleep-inducing hormone.
While the inaccurate dosing information on those melatonin supplements was likely due to a lack of quality control during the manufacturing process, there are countless examples of intentionally misleading marketing language on labels.
So in this month’s newsletter, I wanted to share some of the marketing tactics I’ve seen brands use to try and pass off low-quality products as healthy options.
Before we dive into the details, I would like to thank Lumen for sponsoring this month’s newsletter. Lumen is a metabolic breath analyzer that enables you to improve your metabolic health and flexibility. Scroll down for more information, including a discount code.
Let’s start by picking apart some of the most common marketing language you’ll see on product labels, listed in alphabetical order:
- All Natural
- Fat-Free (or Low Fat)
- Fortified (Cereals, Milk)
- Great Source of Vitamins
- Healthy Ingredients
- No Added Sugar
- Vegetarian Fed (Chickens, Pork, Eggs)
Let’s talk more about each of these label claims.
1. All Natural
The term “all natural” is completely meaningless and does not signify whether a product or its ingredients are healthy. Examples of “all natural” compounds you wouldn’t want in your diet include arsenic, E. coli, lead, gluten, linoleic acid and phytoestrogens.
When I see products with this label, I view it as an indication that the brand is trying hard to make an unhealthy product look healthy. As a result, I recommend you steer clear of such products unless you’re an experienced label reader.
2. Fat-Free (or Low Fat)
The terms “fat-free” and “low fat” are misleading labels that many people associate with healthy products because there is still a misconception that fat (particularly saturated fat and cholesterol) is terrible for your health.
As discussed in this article, saturated fat is actually good for your health. It doesn’t clog your arteries, and it doesn’t increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
While I have no issue with certain (naturally) fat-free foods, such as sweet fruits, I recommend staying away from most processed foods that are labeled as fat-free.
After all, removing fat from a product almost always means adding sugar — fat-free yogurt being a prime example.
I recommend buying plain, full-fat products made with A2 milk if you like yogurt. We make our own yogurt using full-fat milk from 100% grass-fed cows.
3. Fortified (Cereals, Crackers)
Many parents feed their kids fortified foods in an effort to ensure they get an adequate amount of micronutrients. The problem is that junk food that has been “fortified” with synthetic vitamins (that the body can’t absorb) is still junk food. I’m specifically referring to cereals or crackers.
In other words, if the food you feed your kids isn’t naturally nutrient-dense, you shouldn’t be providing it in the first place.
Remember, most processed foods contain inflammatory ingredients — such as grains, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils — that can damage the delicate lining inside the gut and cause chronic inflammation (among other issues).
Additionally, the body poorly absorbs synthetic minerals and vitamins added to fortified foods and most of them end up in the toilet.
Meat, fat and organs from responsibly-raised and wild-caught animals, pastured egg yolks, and raw dairy are naturally rich in nutrients and do not require fortification.
If your kids are like mine and don’t like the taste of organ meat, or are sensitive to dairy or eggs, consider sneaking these nutrient-dense foods into meatballs or patties (we have been successfully doing that with our kids) or offering them freeze-dried beef liver capsules.
Our six and eight-year-olds get a whole serving of liver every day in the form of freeze-dried liver capsules.
None of the products I consider to be fit for human consumption — responsibly raised animals, pastured eggs, raw honey and sweet fruits — are natural sources of gluten. In other words, you’ll likely only see that label on processed products you shouldn’t be eating on a regular basis anyway.
Regardless, a “gluten-free” designation can be helpful for those who suffer from celiac disease. The problem is that many people who don’t have celiac disease equate “gluten-free” with healthy, which is often not the case.
For example, gluten free cookies that contain almond flour and vegetable oil aren’t any healthier than those made with wheat flour and butter. In fact, I’d argue that wheat flour is healthier than (though not healthy) a combination of almond flour and vegetable oil, since the latter combo has twice the potential to irritate your gut and negatively impact your metabolism.
Of course, like I said above: if you have celiac disease and even trace amounts of gluten can set off an allergic reaction, the label gluten-free is meaningful. But even in that case, I’d argue that buying only products that are naturally gluten-free is the better (and healthier) option than buying products that were made gluten-free.
5. Great Source of Vitamins
While gut microbes can produce certain micronutrients, we need to obtain many of them from the food we eat. As a result, consuming nutrient-dense foods is vital for optimal health.
However, many micronutrients exist in various forms in nature, and not all of those forms are readily absorbable.
For example, meat (and in particular, organ meat such as liver) contains retinol, a highly absorbable and bioavailable type of preformed vitamin A.
Plants, on the other hand, have beta carotene and other precursors of vitamin A that are poorly absorbed and not very bioavailable. The same goes for iron, vitamin K and other micronutrients.
So if you see products at the grocery store that claim to be an excellent source of certain vitamins or minerals, know that there’s a good chance the body will poorly absorb the nutrients contained in those foods.
Examples include spinach (non-heme-iron, vitamin K1) and carrots (beta carotene).
The best source of vitamins and minerals is organ meat from ruminant animals and, in particular, liver. That’s why I decided to launch a line of freeze-dried organ meat supplements to offer readily-absorbable nutrients to those who don’t like the taste or texture of fresh organs.
When we buy beef or meat from other ruminant animals, we try to find grass-fed options because grass (as opposed to grains) is those animals’ appropriate diet.
The thing is that all cows are fed grass at some stage of their life. For example, after being weaned from their mother’s milk, calves have to eat grass to properly develop. But after that developmental period, most of them are moved to a feedlot to fatten up on grains.
As a result, brands can claim their products — including meat, milk and cheese — are grass-fed, despite the fact that the animal was eating GMO grains (including corn and soy) for the majority of its life.
Kerrygold — a popular brand that sells “grass-fed” butter and cheese — uses this misleading tactic. A judge recently ruled that the company can continue using the grass-fed label because they’re not saying their products are 100% grass-fed.
The moral of the story is that the term “grass-fed” doesn’t mean much. Instead, look for products that come from 100% grass-fed, grass-finished and pasture-raised animals. My 100% grass-fed beef liver capsules fall into that category.
The brands we trust for 100% grass-fed products include White Oak Pastures*, Maple Hill, Alexandre Family Farms (not all their products are 100% grass-fed) and a bunch of local farms here in the Atlanta area. If you live near me, reply to this email and I’ll hook you up with some names.
7. Healthy Ingredients
The USDA says whole grains are healthy. Advocates of plant-based diets claim that eating plants is healthy. And some people think that “everything in moderation” is a good adage to live by.
I don’t agree with any of those assessments, but it illustrates that the word “healthy” on a food label may not mean anything because there is no universally accepted definition of what “healthy” means.
I’d say that most products that claim healthy ingredients on their label are trying to appeal to an audience that wants to consume healthier food but has no idea what that would actually require.
I recommend being critical of products that use terms like “healthy ingredients” on their label. Chances are the product actually contains unhealthy ingredients.
8. No Added Sugar
Added sugar (together with seed oils) is one of the main factors contributing to the deteriorating health of our society. As a result, products that contain no added sugars are often (but not always) better than those that have them.
However, it’s essential to understand that a bag of potato chips made with inflammatory vegetable oils is bad for you, even if it doesn’t contain added sugars.
The same applies to fruit juices.
For example, apple juice — with or without added sugar (much like most other liquid carbohydrates) — is unhealthy because it raises your blood glucose levels aggressively while providing relatively limited nutritional value.
Additionally, there’s a trick that some brands use to add sugar without having to declare it as such. I’m referring to the use of fruit juices, which don’t count as “added sugars” as far as labeling laws are concerned, but are still sugar.
For produce, the label “non-GMO” means that the seeds of the plants used to make the product weren’t genetically modified (e.g., for better resistance to pests). However, it doesn’t mean that the plants weren’t modified using traditional cross-breeding techniques or selection.
For example, the wheat we grow today (even the few non-GMO varieties that are left) has very little in common with the ancient grains our ancestors may have consumed thousands of years ago. The problem is that with every genetic change we make, we also introduce new types of proteins that our bodies are not accustomed to. As a result, we increase the likelihood of allergic reactions or sensitivities.
The same principle applies to other plants, including fruits and starchy tubers. Tubers that grew hundreds or thousands of years ago were less sweet and much more fibrous, so they were undoubtedly not the staple that modern tubers are.
The bottom line is that “non-GMO” is a step in the right direction, but it’s not the holy grail of food. Also, non-GMO junk food is still junk food.
On a side note, if a food is labeled as organic, it’s automatically non-GMO as well.
We buy organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible because we want to limit our exposure to chemicals. However, most people don’t know that organic doesn’t mean “chemical-free.”
The USDA maintains a list of allowed chemicals farmers can use to grow organic produce, and many of them aren’t good for your health.
In other words, by buying organic produce you get exposed to fewer chemicals than when buying conventionally grown produce, but you won’t escape those toxins completely.
The other trick some organic brands use is to grow fruits (especially berries and leafy greens) in water rather than soil to reduce the need for pesticides. Unfortunately, healthy soil is one of the most important factors in growing nutrient-dense food, and replacing that with liquid plant food isn’t the same thing.
As a result, you can expect the organic berries you find at Costco, Whole Foods and other places to be significantly less nutrient-dense than those organically grown in soil.
Here’s the thing: we like berries but we don’t eat them because of their nutrients (we get those from organ meats). We just eat them because we like how they taste. And as long as they’re free of most toxins, we’re OK with that.
On a side note, we grow a good portion of the berries we eat in our backyard without using any chemicals (organic or otherwise).
Until a few years ago, I thought that pasture-raised also meant 100% grass-fed. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Some brands make pasture-raised claims even if the animals didn’t spend their entire lives on a pasture. But even 100% pasture-raised animals may have had access to grain-based feed.
For products containing the meat or milk of ruminant animals, it’s best to look for “100% pasture-raised” and “100% grass-fed” labels.
For pork and poultry, the label “pastured” is a good indication of appropriate living conditions. However, it doesn’t mean that the animals weren’t fed a diet that may negatively impact your health (and that of the animal).
For example, virtually all pigs and chickens in this country are fed a diet heavy in corn and soy, increasing the inflammatory omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid ratio in their fat tissue.
That’s the main reason we limit our pork and chicken intake.
On a side note, White Oak Pastures* (where we buy a lot of the beef and chicken we consume) recently stopped feeding their chickens corn and soy, and their pigs are next on the list for this welcome upgrade!
Unfortunately, many people still believe that consuming plants is good for your health. As a result, plant-based products are considered healthy.
The truth is that the opposite is usually the case, because many plant-based processed foods (e.g., cooking oils, sausages or fake meat patties) are filled with unhealthy ingredients, including seed oils.
Just compare the ingredient list of a Beyond Burger patty (25 ingredients) with a regular patty (one ingredient), and you’ll realize what I’m talking about.
As a result, I avoid processed foods that are labeled vegan or plant-based. Instead, I always choose 100% grass-fed meat over fake meat; animal fats (such as tallow or butter) over vegetable oils; raw honey over maple syrup; and raw milk over nut, soy or oat milk.
(PS: Maple syrup is OK to consume but isn’t better or healthier than raw honey.)
If you follow a low-carb diet or try to avoid sugar, the term “sugar free” might sound appealing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always mean you’re buying a healthy product.
For example, FDA labeling guidelines allow brands to claim the product has no sugar if it has less than one gram per serving. While that may not sound like a big deal, it could mean that the three packs of “zero sugar” sweetener you pour into your coffee have, in fact, almost three grams of sugar. That’s almost a tablespoon.
The second problem with sugar-free products is that brands often substitute sugar for artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, that are known to negatively impact both the microbiome in your gut as well as your glucose metabolism.
The bottom line is that not all sugar-free products are good for your health, and you need to read the label carefully to understand what sugar substitutes were used instead.
14. Vegetarian Fed (Chickens, Pork, Eggs)
Seeing the label “vegetarian fed” on a carton of eggs makes me giggle, because it’s an honest admission that the chickens were fed a diet that’s inappropriate for the species.
Chickens are insectivores, and while they can also extract nutrients from plants, it’s not their ideal diet.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any commercial alternatives (that I know of) regarding chickens, pork and eggs.
In other words, the best you can do is look for eggs that were fed a corn and soy-free diet.
As you can see, the world of nutrition labels is confusing and often misleading. That’s why it’s important to learn how to read a nutrition label. When I shop for new products, I spend most of the time reading the label and, once I’m done, I return the product to the shelf more often than not.
If you have any questions about label and marketing claims on the products you buy, shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to help you out!
New Articles and Videos You Might Have Missed
Since the last newsletter, I’ve been busy creating new content and updating older articles with fresh information, including the following:
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I’m a healthy living and technology enthusiast.
On this blog, I share in-depth product reviews, actionable information and solutions to complex problems in plain and easy-to-understand language.