5 Buzz Words Abused by Food Companies

Food marketers spend billions of dollars per year (yes, billions!) trying to convince us to buy their products. And sadly, they know what works even if that means using a buzz word that can’t exactly be taken at face value. This all goes back to reading the ingredient label (instead of the front of the package) to determine if your food is “real,” but, since it can be easy to get distracted at the store, here are some terms to be on the look out for…

5 Buzz Words Abused by Food Companies on 100 Days of Real Food

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  1. Natural
    One would think the word “natural” would mean no artificial ingredients were used – and it should in my opinion! – but I once saw a canister of powdered “lemonade” that said “natural” twice on the front of the package, and I turned it around to see not one, not two, but four different artificial additives (and of course no actual lemon in sight) on the ingredient list. Long story short – the word “natural” is currently unregulated so unfortunately meaningless when used on the front of the package.
  2. Farm-Fresh
    The new-found abuse of this term has been driving me nuts. I’ve seen numerous fast food companies touting their highly processed products as being “straight from the farm.” Okay, obviously corn and other produce has to be grown in the ground on some kind of farm, but not all farms are created equal (not even close!). Do you want to eat food that’s been grown in a massive monoculture setting, sprayed with potentially harmful chemicals, picked before it’s even ripe, trucked thousands of miles away, and then processed in a factory to resemble an unhealthy, yet edible meal? No, thank you.
  3. Grass-Fed
    I covered this topic in detail recently, but here’s the short of it – grass fed is not a regulated term either so it can really mean anything. It can mean the animals are 100% grass-fed or 1% grass-fed and since grass is the natural (and healthiest!) diet for some animals, such as cows, it’s an important one.
  4. Free-Range
    Sure, being “free” is better than being locked up, but this term means nothing more than having access to the outside. Because yes, as sick as it is, many factory-farmed animals never even see the light of day (not to mention they’re crammed in coops with soooo many other chickens there is barely room for them to walk around). But, sadly, the term free-range could only be marginally better with animals in similar conditions simply with a door that leads outside to a small patch of dirt. The even better option would be “pasture-raised,” which would at least mean the animals have access to a field that actually has grass on it.
  5. Whole-Grains
    When the front of the package claims it’s “made with whole grains” this is another one of those terms that can mean 100% or 1% – quite a range! So this is one where you REALLY have to check the ingredient label to make sure the whole-grain ingredient is listed BEFORE any refined grains (the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first) or ideally is the only grain that was used.

Did any of these come as a surprise to you or are you already on the lookout for these tricky terms? I’d love to know any important ones I’ve missed!

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16 thoughts on “5 Buzz Words Abused by Food Companies”

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  1. I think it’s worth mentioning that, thanks to the new gluten-free fad diets, many companies are now labeling their food as “gluten-free” when the phrase itself is actually NOT REGULATED. While this might not be a big concern those who eat gluten-free out of personal choice, it can be harmful to those who actually have Celiac Disease!

  2. Quick question for you, what kind of foods to you keep on hand for emergency preparedness? I’m always on the lookout to stock up/try new foods we can store in case of emergency (ex. power outage).

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. We store extra bars, nuts, and nut butters as well as the normal non-perishables for emergency situations and hope never to need them. My problem is after a certain time, you need to rotate them out and refresh. I have forgotten that part too often and end up wasting food. :/ I’m sure you’ve seen this but I do find it helpful: https://www.ready.gov/food.

  3. Quick question for you, what kind of foods to you keep on hand for emergency preparedness? I’m always on the lookout to stock up/try new foods we can store in case of emergency (ex. power outage).

  4. I got just as much info from reading the comments as the article. You really do have to not only read ingredient lists and be mindful of buzzwords but know that even sources you think you can trust aren’t always trustworthy. There is a certain brand of USDA-certified organic milk that raises cows in a CAFO and is regularly fined for abusing the organic label. I miss the days of going to one store and buying all of our groceries, but it’s just not worth it. What is worth it is using real ingredients that our great-grandparents might have eaten, sooo tasty.

  5. Lisa, this is such an important post. How many times have I almost weakened and bought something I desperately wanted to eat – cookies, cake, muffins – but when I read the ingredient list (usually ten miles long), I knew it would kill me. We IBS people have to be even more careful than normal folk..

  6. So how should do we decipher truly farm raised / grass fed meats from meats that claim to be farm raised/grass fed but aren’t? Any tips on this? I seem to always struggle with what meat I should be buying.

  7. I read somewhere too about 100% grassfed not being true either. They can put 100% even when its not. I cant remember why. Its along the lines of cagefree or free range. The legal def means access to a small dirt patch at the side door of a ginormous chicken house. All these things in the article are just legal terms used in marketing. No reality involved. Like a life sentence in prison means you can get parole in x-number of yrs.

  8. I would add “made with 100%….” My mom was telling me she likes Burger King’s chicken nuggets. “But they’re 100% white meat chicken!” I told her, no, they are MADE WITH 100% white meat chicken, but that is only a percentage of what’s in them. I showed her an ingredient list and she was shocked (and grossed out).

  9. Sugar-Free means .5 grams of sugar or less per serving. Sugar alcohol isn’t labeled as sugar at all, yet is still raises blood sugars.

  10. Real, clean, fresh, all things that need to be checked by the ingredient list. Basically just check the ingredients list no matter the buzzwords used. I’ve learned to do it when buying anything packaged and it’s made the world of difference in what I choose to buy. The packaging is made to get you buy the food. Companies want to make profits, not necessarily healthy individuals. Consumers have to be aware of what we are eating and help drive companies with our dollars.

  11. I didn’t know much about this before, I used to buy my groceries really quick! Looks like now I have to check them properly before actually buying them, thanks for sharing this to us!

  12. And what about Scratch Made biscuits? I mean, if I am going to Bojangles, its not cause their biscuits are made from scratch. Not that I would ever go there…

  13. I would add ‘home-baked” or homemade – really, seems like a stretch from a corporate entity. It bugs me when restaurants use it too, but house-made for a restaurant is fine with me for some reason.