Flashy Labels Distract You From Healthy Foods

More facts help consumers make informed decisions, right? That's especially important at grocery stores, where food labels tell us what's going into our bodies every day. But while you may already know to be skeptical of fuzzy marketing phrases like "organic" and "fair trade," those same terms may be limiting your diet in other ways.

Researchers at the University of Delaware wanted to look at process labels, the little slogans that tell you how your food is made and an increasing concern for shoppers who want ethical and sustainable production chains. Those labels often gloss over the wide variety of definitions assumed by the buyer — "natural" does not mean the same thing as "non-GMO," for instance. But while shoppers are trying to be smart about foods explicitly labeled as according with their values, many find themselves simply skipping over healthy foods with no label at all.

Process labels can create the impression that they're a healthy alternative to an unhealthy mass-market option. This may lead you to pay out the nose for one kind of frozen spinach when nutritionally it's no different from a more affordable option. The researchers worry about the consequences for those living in poverty and food insecurity. By trying to do the best thing for their families and themselves, they may confine themselves to "high-end" eating only, which takes a huge bite out of any budget.

"Relying on process labels alone ... is a laissez-faire approach that inevitably surrenders the educational component of labeling to mass media, the colorful array of opinion providers, and even food retailers, who may not always be honest brokers of information," the researchers write in their paper. While being educated about process labels and food sourcing does place a burden on the shopper, you can save a not-insignificant amount by understanding what's really healthy and what's mostly a money-grab.