Decoding marketing on food packaging

By Barbara Broggelwirth MS, RDN, CDN

Have you ever purchased a product at the grocery store because it said “100% organic” on the front packaging or a frozen pizza because it was marketed as “cauliflower” pizza? If so, you are not alone.  According to Grand View Research Market Analysis Report, the U.S. packaged food market was valued at 1.03 trillion dollars in 2021 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 4.8% from 2022 to 2030. The good news is that more of us are caring about what we put into our bodies, however, in response, this drives the food industry to capitalize on our efforts by promoting food using “health halos”.  This is when food manufacturers use tactics to draw a consumer’s attention to one “virtuous” aspect of a food making the food appear better for you than it actually is. Here are some examples:

Contains Probiotics:

The health halo claim is that probiotics improve immunity and improve digestion. And this is true, however it is best to get them in their natural state. Naturally fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and kombucha produce probiotics. Be wary of a food that is not naturally fermented (or ultra processed) with the term on the front of the label stating “Contains probiotics”.


Gluten Free:

Gluten free suggests that gluten is bad for everyone. Grains that contain gluten, such as wheat, barley and rye, are whole grains and provide beneficial fiber, vitamins, and minerals to your diet. Only people with celiac disease, wheat allergy, or gluten intolerance need to avoid gluten due to potentially serious health consequences. Processed foods that remove gluten often substitute other unhealthy items like added sugar and sodium.

Contains Antioxidants:

Antioxidants are added to breakfast cereals, sports bars, energy drinks, and other processed foods, and they are promoted as additives that can prevent heart disease, cancer, cataracts, memory loss, and other conditions. It is true that antioxidants neutralize free radicals and are very healthy for us, but in order to reap the benefits, it is best to get them from fruits and vegetables, not in processed foods.


Cauliflower (chips, pizza, crackers):

A processed cheese cracker made with cauliflower may still be high in fat and sodium, so don’t assume that just because the label says it is made with cauliflower that it automatically means what you are eating is healthy. Stick to the real deal. Frozen riced cauliflower is a great sub out for some rice but be careful of the prepared cauliflower mac and cheese and mashed potatoes, they may be much higher in saturated fat.


Keto Friendly:

Many items that are labeled “keto” exceed the USDA recommendations for saturated fat. They also tend to be much higher in calories and very low in fiber. If weight management is your goal, you are better off balancing your plate with healthy fats, lean protein and plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.



GMO stands for genetically modified organism. GMO’s are tightly regulated by the FDA, USDA and the EPA. Similar to cross breeding plants to parse out a desired trait, GMO’s fast track that process by inserting the desired trait into another organism’s DNA. There is no scientific evidence to support that consuming GMO foods lead to negative health outcomes. What we do know for certain is that hyper palatable, hypercaloric foods that are filled with food dyes and preservatives are linked with chronic disease.


It’s Organic

Just because a package says it is organic doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain added sugars, refined grains or high in saturated fat. Read the ingredient list and use the food label to guide your decision.


Plant Based

There is no FDA standard definition of the term and various organizations, companies and individuals use it to mean different things. NSF International and PBFA are third party verifiers to introduce a plant-based icon, Certified Plant Based.  NSF stipulates that only plant-based foods that are intended to replace animal-based products such as meat, egg and dairy alternatives are eligible. Just because something is plant based, does not automatically make it healthy. These foods can be highly processed.


Cholesterol Free:

Dietary cholesterol comes only from animal foods. Potato chips, along with fruits, vegetables and whole grains, have no cholesterol. However, be sure to check the nutrition facts label on the potato chip bag for saturated fat, which causes your body to produce more cholesterol.

If you want to make informed choices about what you are putting into your body, read the food label and the ingredient list. As a general rule of thumb, follow the recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans:


Core elements that make up a healthy dietary pattern include:

  • Vegetables of all types – dark green; red and orange; beans, peas
  • Whole fruits
  • Whole grains
  • Low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions and fortified
  • Protein foods, including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts,
  • Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts


Aim for the following servings per day

  • Vegetables – 2.5 cups per day
  • Fruit – 3-4 ½ cup servings
  • Grains ½ cup cooked x 3 per day
  • Lean protein – 5 oz per day
  • Oils – approximately 2 Tbsp per day
  • Discretionary calories – up to 240




Barbara Broggelwirth MS, RDN, CDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with Bariatric and Medical Weight Management patients to help them achieve their health and weight loss goals.