Being a food manufacturer is tricky these days. These companies need to use the cheapest possible ingredients to maintain their profit margins, but what they put into the product goes under intense scrutiny by today’s health-conscious consumers.

Problem is, healthy ingredients are expensive. Taboo ingredients, such as partially hydrogenated oils and saturated fats, are cheap. So how does the manufacturer handle these tricky situations?

They pass the tricks onto the consumer, of course!

So every time we shop, we have to be vigilant about what we’re getting, because there’s always someone trying to pull one over on us. That’s why I compiled a list of tricks that most companies play on us:

cheetos 0g trans fats

Trick #1: “0 grams” of Unhealthy Ingredients

The trick: Foods are labeled as containing “0g trans fat” or “0g saturated fat” per serving.

Unfortunately, “0” does not mean 0. It actually means “up to 0.5” grams per serving. So if you consume two servings of some “0g trans fats” snacks, you could be ingesting up to 1g of trans fats. (And no one eats just one or two servings…)

Heck, even the words “fat free” on the label allow up to 0.5g fat per serving.

How to spot it: Foods that are actually healthy don’t need to bother claiming “0g trans fats.” So if you see a bag of chips with a big “0g trans fats” badge right on front, they are probably pulling this trick.

Worst offender: Frito Lay snacks, such as Cheetos. Frito Lay takes pride in the fact that they were the first major food company to remove trans fats from their snack chips, and I applaud them for taking the initiative, but it doesn’t mean their snacks are healthy.

What to do: Skip past the Nutrition Facts label and peruse the ingredients. If the ingredients list contains any type of hydrogenated oils, partially hydrogenated soybean oil for instance, then the product contains trans fats, no matter how big the “0g trans fats” badge is.

kashi granola bar

Trick #2: Combining Healthy Ingredients

The trick: In order to have a healthy-sounding ingredient first on the ingredients list, the producer combines a bunch of healthy ingredients into their own special mix or blend, and then lists that as the first ingredient.

If this was not done, the small amounts of separate ingredients would be listed towards the end of the list, while something evil like “sugar” would be the first or second ingredient.

Usually there is no reason to do this… unless, of course, they are trying to trick you.

How to spot it: Look at the ingredient list and see if the first ingredient sounds anything like “special protein blend” or “proprietary blend” or “whole grain mix.” It’s pretty easy to spot!

Worst offender: Kashi granola bars, where the first ingredient is “Kashi Seven Whole Grains & SesameĀ® Blend.” In this case, the product is a pretty healthy choice, but it’s a perfect example of how they could push certain ingredients well down the list.

Plenty of other healthy and unhealthy bars use this tactic, too. Just about every protein bar will list a “proprietary protein blend” first.

What to do: Read the whole ingredients list. If you scan past that blend, you’ll probably see something less enticing as the ‘second’ ingredient. (I say ‘second’ ingredient because it’s probably the tenth word in the list!)

It just depends what all is included on the rest of the ingredients list. Kashi uses organic brown rice syrup, but the majority of other brands will list high fructose corn syrup and possibly a partially hydrogenated oil.

froot loops box

Trick #3: Splitting Sugars

The trick: This is the reverse of the combining healthy ingredients strategy listed above. The producer does not want the word “sugar” at the beginning of the ingredients list, so they split the total sugar content into multiple types of sugar, allowing them to list the sugars towards the end of the list.

This way they stick with their large amount of sugar to keep the product tasting good, and they have the product appearing healthier at the same time.

How to spot it: Just scan through the ingredients list and look for different types of sugar. If you see sugar, brown sugar, dextrose, corn syrup, and/or corn syrup solids listed separately, you found a trickster.

Worst offender: Most sweet, colorful cereals, such as Froot Loops. Froot Loops actually lists sugar as the first ingredient, but still lists sugar, corn syrup, and dextrose afterward. (Yep, “sugar” is actually listed twice.)

What to do: Again, dissect the ingredients list. If you see a bunch of different sugars listed, chances are there is way too much sugar in the product, so move on.

Also, if you look at the grams of sugar per serving (on the nutrition facts section,) that will shed some light on the situation.

hammer gel

Trick #4: Sugar That Isn’t Sugar

The trick: Maltodextrin is a very sweet carbohydrate that is virtually equivalent to regular table sugar, but it doesn’t need to be listed as sugar in the nutrition facts label. It looks and tastes like sugar, and it’s an astounding 105 on the Glycemic Index, which makes it even faster to enter the bloodstream than sugar! But yet it doesn’t count as “sugar” on the nutrition facts.

(Table sugar, or sucrose, which gets such a bad rap, is merely a 64 on the Glycemic Index!)

How to spot it: Look for products that claim to use only complex carbohydrates, or ones that claim to be “sugar free.” Then on the Nutrition Facts label the sugar will be very low, but total carbs will be high.

Worst offender: Hammer Nutrition, who evangelizes how their products with their complex carbs are the only way to go, and if you eat simple sugars, you are going to ride slow and get fat.

Hammer’s products, such as Heed, have maltodextrin as the first ingredient. But when you look at the Nutrition Facts, you’ll see 2g sugar, but a whole 25g carbs.

What to do: If you’re buying a sports drink or energy bar, you want something with sugar, so I’m not saying you should avoid this. But look at similar products and compare ingredients before buying anything based on some fancy sales tactics.

Hammer’s maltodextrin-based products are just fine, and I think they taste great, but they’re filled with sugar like anything else. If you don’t believe me, just look at the Powerbar Endurance sports drink – maltodextrin is the first ingredient!

enriched white bread

Trick #5: Enriched Wheat Flour

The trick: “Enriched wheat flour” is used on the ingredients list instead of “enriched white flour” because some consumers just want to see the word “wheat” on there.

Sounds healthy, right? Certainly much better than white flour? Nope, it’s actually the same. Since white flour comes from wheat, it can be called wheat flour.

How to spot it: If the supposed “wheat” or “multi-grain” product is plain white, you can bet that it is made with simple white flour.

Worst offender: Nearly all big bread companies.

What to do: You need to look for “100% whole wheat flour” on the list to actually get a quality whole grain product. Also, when it comes to bread, a high-quality whole wheat bread is going to be brown and heavy. It will be expensive as well; expect to pay $3-4 per loaf (more for boutique brands.)

The best thing to do, though, is to bake your own bread at home! That allows you to make your own flour from whole grains while avoiding artificial crap and preservatives that would find their way into the healthiest store-bought breads. And if you have the time and culinary skills, try making a loaf of sprouted grain bread!

green tea soda

Trick #6: Just a Dash of Healthy Ingredients.

The trick: Lots of bags and boxes mention how there are neat herbs, vitamins, minerals, etc. in the food inside. But to mention that, the company need only add a tiny amount of said ingredient to the product.

How to spot it: Just look on the ingredient list – chances are that ingredient that is actually healthy is listed last. This could be that the food is in a lightweight powdered form, or it could be that there is virtually none in there.

Worst offender: Steaz green tea soda, which is more like soda with a tiny bit of green tea powder added in to give it a healthy name. Sure, Steaz tastes pretty good, but all the sugar far outweighs the health benefits of the green tea.

What to do: Validate all manufacturer claims by looking at the ingredients list and seeing how close to the front the healthy ingredients are listed. And if you want healthy ingredients, don’t bother looking at soda!

oreos 100 calorie pack

Trick #7: Unreal Serving Sizes.

The trick: Wanting to keep fat and calories low on a “per serving” basis, companies list serving sizes as ridiculously low amounts.

You might see something like, “just 100 calories and 1g fat per serving!” Yeah, well, one of those servings is about three bite-size cookies. Plan to eat at least three servings at once.

How to spot it: Look at the nutrition facts and see exactly what the serving size is. It might be “3 chips” or something like that.

Worst offender: All cookies and chips that come in small servings, but specifically the Oreos 100 calorie packs.

What to do: Think about how many cookies you are likely to eat in one sitting and determine the actual number of servings you will consume based on that. Then you can calculate total calories and fat for your preferred serving size. The food probably won’t seem low calorie any more!

all natural animal crackers

Trick #8: “All Natural” Foods

The trick: Since a “natural” food sounds healthier, manufacturers are slapping the term “natural” on their packaging to make you think the product is healthy.

Unfortunately, “natural” is not a strictly regulated term like “organic.” Virtually anything can be labeled as “natural.” Heck, even flavors made in a laboratory can be called natural flavors if they are based on a substance found in nature!

How to spot it: Usually these products proclaim “ALL NATURAL” in big letters on the front of the label. The long version is more like, “Eat our natural potato chips since they’re made from potatoes that were grown in the dirt, and that dirt was there on its own, so it’s natural!”

Worst offender: Stauffer’s All Natural Animal Crackers. While the “all natural” version may be marginally healthier than the regular version, what makes sugar and invert syrup natural? If processed sugar and syrup are natural, then HFCS must be as healthy as eating corn on the cob! [Note the sarcasm.]

What to do: Use common sense. If the product is called natural, but it doesn’t look like anything you see growing on a farm, it’s not likely to be natural.

reduced fat potato chips

Trick #9: “Low Calorie” and “Reduced Fat” Foods

The trick: Products get labeled “low calorie” or “reduced fat” to resonate with consumers as a low fat food.

These are tricky terms because it only means “lower calories than the typical, high-calorie version of the product.” It’s still going to be much higher in calories than a carrot!

So if you see a food labeled “low calorie,” there’s a good chance the producer also has an original or older version of the product.

How to spot it: No matter what the packaging says, read the actual nutrition facts label and you’ll see the true number of calories and fat per serving. Chances are it will still be relatively high (or the serving size will be very small.)

Worst offender: The Ruffles potato chips pictured above. I do believe the “25% less fat than regular Ruffles Potato Chips” claim, but look at the rest of the bag. They have the nerve to put wording on there like “Smart Choices Made Easy” and “Heart Healthy Oil.” Is that supposed to mean that potato chips are good for your heart?! Ha!

Honorable mentions include all the varieties of reduced fat potato chips. Reduced fat chips aren’t low in fat compared to fruits and vegetables, just slightly lower in fat than regular chips.

What to do: It’s simple – avoid chips and snack crackers. They are all high in calories and not filling at all, so have some good fruit instead.

gatorade

Trick #10: Confusing Names, Synonyms, and/or Acronyms on the Label.

The trick: If a certain substance becomes regarded as unhealthy or faces bad publicity, manufacturers won’t want it listed on their ingredients list. Instead of switching to a healthier ingredient, they just disguise the name to throw you off track.

How to spot it: You actually have to analyze the ingredient list and make sure you know what each ingredient is.

Worst offender: There are so many good examples, I can’t narrow it down to one. So here are a few…

“Splenda” was big until certain people got the idea that artificial sweeteners were bad. So it was still used, but listed as “sucralose” on the label. A lot of people hear “MSG is bad for you” but if they saw “Monosodium glutamate” on a label, would they notice?

I got tricked with a drink called Press Cocktail Soda. Instead of listing “high fructose corn syrup” on the list, they put “42 HFCS” on there, which is just a different form of HFCS. Since the ingredients were written in white on a shiny silver skinny can, I totally missed it.

Even Gatorade did this. They used “glucose-fructose syrup” on the label back when I was just a newbie in the sports drink world. Trusting Gatorade, I thought that fancy terminology meant I was getting some high-tech, nutritious formula! Eventually they had to tell the truth, which is why you now see “high fructose corn syrup” on the label.

What to do: Study up on your terminology so you can figure this out on the fly.

It’s like how detectives need to be able to think like criminals in order to solve a crime. You need to think like a greedy food corporation and figure out the best disguises for unhealthy ingredients.

But once you know the tricks, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be fooled by any unscrupulous manufacturers and their claims!

Finally, to improve your diet even further, discover the 5 Foods You Should Completely Eliminate from Your Diet!

Show References

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This article was originally published on August 26, 2009. Because food labels are still tricky to decipher, it was republished on June 20, 2018.

Levi Bloom is an experienced endurance athlete who has been training and competing for over 17 years. A former Cat 1 road and mountain bike racer (professional class on the regional circuit), he is now a cycling coach (USA Cycling Level 3 Certified) and sports nutrition coach (Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certified).

2 Comments
  1. where the heck can i get those marshmallow fruit loops! i had no idea they made those! i must have them!

  2. @Jaycee

    LOL. I haven’t looked lately, but they’re still listed as available in store on Walmart.com, and sold on Amazon. So I guess they still make them!

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