10 Food Label Warning Signs

There's a lot of fluff on food packaging these days. Here's ten things to look for to make sure you're buying good stuff.


10 Food Label Warning Signs

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I’ve been doing my Guess The Food series for over a year now. I try to do one a month but obviously they are a bit more spaced out than that as I’ve only done 10 of them in 15 months.

Besides learning that you guys are all very excellent at guessing processed foods, I’ve also learned a good amount about ingredients and food labels through writing the series.

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that the people that write the packaging on these products are, for lack of a better word, slimy.

They are experts at the English language and they’ll twist it and warp it until you think that sour cream covered candy bars are HEALTHY.

So I thought it’d be good to take a few of the things I’ve learned while writing Guess the Food and compile a list of the 10 things to watch out for when shopping in the grocery store.

A Warning

This list is a general one. I don’t want to give the impression that you shouldn’t buy products that do any of these things. They are just warning signs so you can investigate further.

On to the list!

10) Asterisks

If you’re looking at a package and there are asterisks all over the place, that means that they need to explain something further, probably because it’s a half-lie. For example, I’ve seen kids’ juice boxes that say JUICE*. Then if you can find the * on the box, it says something like “Only 10% real juice.”

Some producers use crosses instead of asterisks. Same idea though.

9) Full Serving!

If the thing you are buying proclaims that you are getting a full serving of ____ by eating or drinking it, be on guard. The best way to get a serving of anything is to eat that thing. Anything else is just a trick. Check out my Guess the Food on Manwich for a good example of how food producers do this.

8) 47% Less!

Ok. It doesn’t have to be 47% but any time a product says that it has a percentage less of something, watch out. This is because you only know half of the equation. A practical example of this would be if a restaurant advertised that their hamburgers are 47% off on Fridays. Sounds great right? Except when you go there and the burger costs $12 because it’s normally $22.64.

Sugar and salt are prime ingredients for this tactic.

7) Strange Servings

It always amazes me what these people come up with for serving sizes. You should always check serving sizes on anything you buy, but especially look out for weird ones because it means someone is trying to get tricky. Like, if you see a serving size of “1/6 BOX”. That’s just silly.

6) Good Source

Anytime you see this on a package, look out. They are trying to oversell and the FDA is unfortunately helping them out. They define the term “good source” as only 10% of your daily needs in that given thing.

I just think that’s an absurdly low standard for the word “good.” It’s a source yes, but most likely not a good one.

5) No HFCS!

If the food you’re buying says that it doesn’t have High Fructose Corn Syrup in it, be leery. If that’s the best thing they have to offer for marketable benefits, then it’s probably a pretty crappy product anyway.

If you were to see a bottle of ketchup labeled “No Arsenic!” would you be more or less interested in buying that thing?

Now, I’m not equating HFCS to arsenic, I’m just pointing out that it probably shouldn’t have been in that food to begin with so the fact that they are shouting from the rooftops that it doesn’t have it isn’t a big deal.


Even if products SAY they don’t have High Fructose Corn Syrup in them, I still look at the ingredients list. If the product doesn’t say it, then also look for it. If it does say it, then see what they replaced it with (probably a boatload of sugar).

Now, I’m not a high fructose corn syrup Nazi. Just because a product has HFCS doesn’t mean I won’t buy it. It doesn’t bother me to see it in products that it’s typically used for like soda. I know that when I buy soda (rarely), I’m buying that. It bothers me to see it in stuff like soup. It bothers me when it doesn’t make sense.

3) No Trans Fats!

It’s almost a guarantee that if this label is on any food item, it will, in fact, not contain any trans fats. It’s almost as sure of a guarantee that it will contain a pant-load of other fats. Anytime you see this, just translate it as “Lots of Fat!”

2) Double Digits

One of the first things I look for when I turn over a product is the nutritional information. Most importantly, I look for anything that has double digits of my daily recommended percentage per serving. Given that I almost never eat a single serving of anything (try two or three), if something has 20% of my daily recommended salt, then I probably shouldn’t eat it regularly.

Double digits doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy or eat that thing, but it’s a serious warning sign about what’s in that “food.”

1) Enriched Flour

Ok. This might not be the worst of the warning signs, but it’s the one that pisses me off the most. Any kind of breaded processed food will almost certainly have this as the number one ingredient.

The first two definitions of “Enriched” are “To make rich or richer” and “To make fuller, more meaningful, more rewarding.” Enriched flour is not this.

To give products a longer shelf life, they strip out all the good stuff in flour. All the stuff that could go rancid, but also all the stuff that is nutritional. Then, to save face, they add back in some of the good stuff they took out. Just some of it though.

So it’s actually deriched. It should be labeled that. When you see “enriched flour”, just think “deriched flour.”

Your warning signs?

If you have things that I didn’t mention that you look out for when you’re buying food, leave a comment!

12 Responses to “10 Food Label Warning Signs” Leave a comment

  1. "New and Improved" What? What was wrong with the prior version of your product? Am I going to die? Why the heck did you release the stuff if you were not done with the recipe yet?

    Of course, quite allot of time "New and Improved" refers to packaging size. Same great product, same low price. Only now they've included fewer ounces for your hard earned money.

    Thanks for sharing Nick!
    My recent post Wine Tasting – 2010 Santa Rita 120 Cabernet Sauvignon

  2. It ticks me off when you buy frozen vegetables that already have salt. I buy frozen so that I don't have to worry about added salt…or so I thought.

    But yeah, the "new and improved" smaller packaging thing ticks me off too.
    My recent post Happy birthday to me!

  3. You better watchit Nick – you may get put on an "Un-American Watch List" by the FBI or FDA………

    A couple of additions to support your points:

    HFCS FACTOID: HFCS shuts off your body's natural ability to know when you are no longer hungry. Fructose also converts to fat more than any other sugar. This maybe the singular biggest reasons why Americans continue to get fat.

    Serving Size: I previously pointed out that the FDA is quite thorough in it's determination of a serving size that manufacturers are allowed to put on their labels – it's not arbitrary – however in the case of the MANWICH – the 2nd ingredient is HFCS ……….DUH!
    My recent post DIY- Fat-Free Greek Style Yogurt

  4. "All Natural!"

    I see this one everywhere and it means NOTHING! Yet some people will read that same label and automatically assume the food must be healthy.

  5. Some foods require immediate refrigeration after you open them, even if they were not refrigerated previously. Because the sealing mechanism on a food product is permanently compromised once the item has been opened, air and bacteria can now enter and spoil the previously unexposed edibles. Some foods (such as fresh meat, frozen goods and most dairy) have labels communicating the need for continuous refrigeration whether the packaging is fully intact or not.

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