35 Misleading Product Labels Designed to Trick You

Misleading Product Labels Designed to Trick You
Photo taken at shopping mall in Bodrum, Turkey

Being a marketer must be great.

The FDA and USDA can’t keep up with the “creative” terms they pull out of thin air.

From the supermarket to the pharmacy, there’s so much wiggle room, you really have to watch out.

Chiquita Banana for instance, invokes the lovely image of a Latin American girl carrying fruit from her family farm.

But it’s the rebranding of United Fruit, which was anything but a friend to the region.

Breyers was the gold standard of ice cream in America for a century.

Their ingredient list was short and simple. It included things you’d expect, like milk and cream.

Until Unilever took over and lowered the dairy content so much they’re not allowed to call themselves ice cream.

Breyers
Breyers “Ice Cream” (Source: mouseprint.org)

Breyers now identifies as a “frozen dairy dessert” and contains over 40 ingredients.

It turns out, it’s more profitable to cut corners and hire a marketing team than provide quality.

On that note, here’s a quick guide to product label claims you should ignore.


Food

Food Labels
The only food label I trust. Photo taken at local farmer’s market in Zagreb, Croatia. And yes, they were delicious.

When a product tries to sound healthy, watch out!

The best way to get all natural and healthy groceries is at a farmer’s market.

Here’s a list of them all over the U.S.

But despite our best intentions, you might end up in a grocery store.

So it’s good to be prepared.

You’ll be battling the wit and experience of a thousand Don Drapers.

 “Organic”

The FDA and USDA actually regulate this term.

But, it surprisingly means more for livestock than it does for fruits and vegetables.

For livestock, it means no hormones or antibiotics were used. Also, the animals can roam freely all year and eat organic feed.

For crops, it doesn’t guarantee that pesticides haven’t been sprayed. It just limits them to ones approved by the organization. It does not necessarily mean it’s healthier for you though.

“Reduced sodium”

Reduced from what? A block of salt?

Try to find “low-sodium” labeling, which sets the limit to no more than 140mg per serving.

“Sugar free”

Can still contain artificial sweeteners.

Look instead for “unsweetened”, meaning that nothing is added on top of naturally occurring sugars.

“Lightly sweetened”

Does not specify how much lightly means. It could have more or less sugar than other products.

Buying processed foods makes it hard to eat healthy.

“Good source of fiber”

Can mean that processed fibers like those from chicory root, which aren’t proven to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, have been added.

Stick to natural sources of fiber like beans, grains, fruits and vegetables.

“Made with real fruit”

Again, how much and what type aren’t specified.

Actual real or dried fruit give the best results.

“Kid approved”

Sounds great, but meaningless. The kids I know would eat pixie sticks all day.

“Made with natural goodness”

What does that even mean?

 “Contains anti-oxidants”

How much and what type?

Fruit and vegetables are excellent sources of anti-oxidants.

“Made with whole grains/made with 100% whole grain/multigrain”

This can mean .01% is whole grain and the rest is processed flour.

Look instead for “100% whole grain”. It’s a minor difference in wording, but makes a world of difference.

You’re better off going to your local bakery.

“No artificial colors”

Better than nothing, but still doesn’t mean much.

The product can contain all sorts of nasty stuff.

“Free range/pasture range”

This only works for chickens and their eggs.

It just means they have access to the outside world. Doesn’t specify for how long or how big the enclosure is.

The “AWG” seal carries more weight. Or try to find USDA Certified Organic eggs.

“Grass-fed”

Doesn’t specify how much grass.

It can mean a single blade a day.

Look for the USDA Certified Organic seal to ensure livestock were given organic feed at least.

“Farm-raised”

Factory farms are also farms.

Doesn’t mean higher quality or the animals are treated better.

Bonus tip!

No one wants to get sick trying to save a few bucks. I learn the hard way every time I scrape mold off food in the hope of salvaging it.

But according to the USDA, the statements below don’t mean food is spoiled after the printed date:

  • Best if Used by/before:
  • Sell-by:
  • Use-by:
  • Freeze-by:

No one can predict when food will spoil. Not even the government.

Fortunately, we have built in sensors honed over thousands of years of natural selection.

You can eat something as long as it passes the sight and smell test, i.e. isn’t spoiled.

The only exception being infant formula, which should be tossed after the use-by date.


Low Hanging Fruit Section

Low Hanging Fruit Section
Locally-made granola bought in Hoi An, Vietnam. It’s crunchy all day!

The following terms are pretty lazy. It’s like someone from marketing brought a kitten to work that day.

“All natural”

This one is everywhere.

So common that the FDA has a whole section dedicated to what it doesn’t mean:

 “…The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.”

“Local”

Can mean any place from Chile to Myanmar.

 “Simple”

If it contains ingredients you can’t pronounce, this claim doesn’t hold water.

 “Healthy”

As opposed to a hunk of lard? Maybe. Healthy can mean anything.

“Nutritious”

Everything has nutritional value. How much, is the sticking point.

“Wholesome”

Very hard to define. The Cosby Show was considered wholesome at one time.

“Gluten-free water”

All water is gluten-free. This is like saying your butter is sugar-free.


Cosmetics

“Alcohol Free”

Only covers ethyl alcohol, A.K.A. the fun one that makes you forget hours of your life. This claim was created to stop people from using products for this purpose.

There are many types of alcohols like cetyl, stearyl and lanolin that aren’t covered.

They all affect your skin in different ways, so it’s hard to know which ones aren’t beneficial.

“Cosmeceutical”

Sounds great. Like you’re getting a two for one deal, but it actually doesn’t mean anything.

“Cruelty Free” / “Not Tested on Animals” /
“Only tests on animals when required by law” / “Humane”

I covered this one here.

TL;DR. These terms don’t guarantee the product or its ingredients weren’t tested on animals.

The Leaping Bunny is the most reputable cruelty-free certification.

“Hypoallergenic” Cosmetics

Should mean that the product causes fewer allergic reactions. Actually means whatever the company wants it to.

EWG does a pretty good job of testing ingredients for irritation. Though they’re not without controversy.

“Organic” Cosmetics

The FDA and USDA may regulate this claim for food, but they don’t for cosmetics. So this won’t mean the product is somehow safer or better.


Pharmaceuticals

Pharmaceutical Labels
Pharmaceutical labels that aren’t relevant

“Doctor recommended”

Doctors recommend OxyContin and Fentanyl everyday. This doesn’t inspire confidence.

“9 out of 10 doctors recommend”

Same as the previous entry, but with more steps. You can disregard it.

“Extra/maximum strength”

It means the drug contains more of the active ingredient. Doesn’t reveal how much extra though. You need to check the back of the box.

“Non-drowsy”

The drug doesn’t contain ingredients that make you sleepy. But doesn’t mean it will keep you alert.

“Boosts Immune System”

If only… Not measurable, so it carries no weight.


Jewelry

“Conflict-free”

Jewelers can’t trace the source of their diamonds because they’re resold several times.

It’s just an excuse to mark up the price on already worthless hunks of carbon.

The only true conflict-free diamonds are made in a lab. Unless the scientists were arguing over where to grab lunch.

Don’t like diamonds? They can even make rubies and sapphires if you like.


In General

In my quest to shop better, I run into the following claims a lot. They almost always are misleading.

The harder they try to convince you of something, the less likely it is to be true.

  • “Based in the USA/state”
  • “Designed in the USA/state”

In my experience, these almost always means “made/manufactured in China”.

“Biodegradable”

Everything is biodegradable on a long enough time frame.

Look for “compostable”, which specifies a time frame of 90 days.

“Eco-friendly”

I covered this one here.

“Greenwashing” describes the myriad of certifications that try to convince you something is good for the planet.

Every product does some harm to the environment by just existing.

Try to buy locally and only what you need.

“Fair trade”

It should mean that workers were paid an internationally competitive wage and were not exploited.

Unfortunately, there’s no governing body to enforce this claim.

You’ll have to do some digging, which is hard without an investigative journalist at your disposal.


So the moral of the story is, don’t believe everything you see on product labels.

And always approach them with a skeptical mind.

This gets overwhelming, so here’s a cheat sheet:

If

  • Their ingredient list has over 10 items
  • You can’t pronounce half of them
  • They have a board of directors
  • They have a team of lawyers
  • They have a cartoon mascot
  • They advertise during the super bowl (bonus points if the commercial is touching)

They’re probably not nutritious, healthy, eco-friendly, non-irritating, cruelty-free or ethically made.

Thanks for reading!

If we missed anything let us know in the comment section.

1 thought on “35 Misleading Product Labels Designed to Trick You”

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    Reply

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