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8 Food Label Deceptions: What to Look for in Foods to Build Quality Muscle Mass

July 22, 2020

Food labels

You have to eat to pack on muscle mass. In fact, you have to eat a lot. But you already know that.

The problem is that food labels can sometimes be deceiving. And because you have to eat so much food for size and strength, it can be difficult to eat healthy all of the time.

But there are 2 things you certainly do not want…

  1. Sloppy mass gains
  2. Poor health for the sake of a few extra pounds of muscle

In this post, you’ll learn about some of the major deceptions on food labels. And at the end of the post, I’ll share some tips on what to look for.

Now, it’s important to note that the goal here isn’t to completely avoid unhealthy foods; it’s to minimize them. And it’s also to be aware of what you’re eating.

Hungry yet? Let’s dig in…

Natural or All Natural

‘All natural’ is one of the most common labels you’ll see on foods. The reason is that there are no special requirements other than the food cannot contain any synthetic or artificial ingredients.

Food labeled “natural,” according to the USDA definition, does not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives and the ingredients are only minimally processed. However, they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals.

Regulations are fairly lenient for foods labeled “natural.” Producers must submit a sort of application at the time of slaughter, detailing practices used throughout the life of the animal. Labels are evaluated to prevent mislabeling but no inspections are conducted and producers are not required to be certified.

‘What do food labels really mean?’ by Green City Blue Lake: The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, gcbl.org

You may think you’re eating a healthy meal yet it could have things like high fructose corn syrup or preservatives. Those are the types of things you want to limit in your diet.

It’s also difficult to trust a label that says ‘natural’ or ‘all-natural.’ Especially since there is no certification process that the manufacturer has to go through. ‘Natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean healthy.

This is where us bodybuilders and weightlifters have to be careful. We have to eat a lot for fuel and recovery so that we can gain muscle.

Because of that, we are prone to getting more of the ‘junk’ in our bodies. That, and you could be taking in more sugar or fat than you want.

TIP: Although many foods labeled as natural or all-natural are typically minimally processed, you need to take a close look at the label. See what ingredients are listed.

A good rule to follow is to minimize foods that have:

– Too many ingredients
– Ingredients that you can’t pronounce!
– And, of course, high in sugar


Food - Organic oatmeal

‘Organic’ is one of the biggest buzz words in the food industry. It’s also one of the greatest marketing strategies that food manufacturers use.

Here are some facts about organic foods:

  • Better soil and water purity
  • Grown in a more natural and less polluted environment
  • No synthetic fertilization or synthetic pesticides are allowed
  • No antibiotics, hormones, or genetic engineering used
  • Organic foods and some pasture feeding for animals

This comes directly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as follows:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program that requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards. These standards regulate how such foods are grown, handled and processed.

Any product labeled as organic on the product description or packaging must be USDA certified. If it is certified, the producer may also use an official USDA Organic seal.

‘Organic foods: Are they safer? More nutritious?’ by Mayo Clinic Staff, mayoclinic.org

There’s no doubt that eating organic is awesome. But the potential misconception here is assuming that all organic food is healthy.

Some organic foods may be high in sugar. Even though the sugar is from natural (organic) sources, eating too much sugar can cause problems that can be counterproductive to gaining muscle.

Also, some organic foods may also be high in fat. That raises another concern if you’re watching your macros for bodybuilding.

TIP: Eating organic is indeed a step up from ‘all-natural.’ And organic is certainly a better choice for building quality muscle mass.

If you’re eating more food, you want to know the majority of that food is minus any chemicals, preservatives, and such.

One thing to keep in mind is the differences between 100% organic, organic, made with organic, and organic ingredients. Obviously the ‘100% organic’ is the way to go.

Just look for that official USDA Organic seal on the label.

Reduced or Low Fat

One of the most common mass-gaining strategies that bodybuilders have used for decades is:

  • High protein
  • Moderate carbs
  • Low fat

Although you need to include some healthy fats, you’re watching your fat intake closely on this type of meal plan. So you may be tempted to eat foods labeled ‘reduced fat.’

What exactly does ‘reduced fat’ mean? How is this measured?

Reduced-fat” foods must have at least 25% less fat than regular versions of those foods.

‘Low-Fat Diet: Why Fat-Free Isn’t Trouble-Free’ Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on November 26, 2018, webmd.com

The problem with ‘reduced fat’ is that often there’s other junk to compensate for it. Mainly sugar.

Whereas higher carbs and lower fat may be your goal, eating excessive sugar will destroy your physique. Of course, high sugar can also cause health issues down the road.

TIP: One of the ways you can eat a true bodybuilding-style low-fat diet is to eat lean sources of protein like chicken or fish, and eat complex sources of carbohydrates such as oatmeal, vegetables, potatoes, peas, and whole grains.

And make sure you’re eating healthy sources of fats like you get from eggs, olive oil, almond butter, nuts, and avocados.


Food - Cocoa Pebbles gluten free

First of all, what is gluten? Many have no clue what it is; they just see ‘gluten-free’ on the label and assume that gluten is something they should avoid.

Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye, and barely. Some of the foods includes:

  • Bread
  • Some baked foods
  • Pasta
  • Soup
  • Cereal
  • Some sauces and dressings
  • Beer

Of course, these are foods high in carbohydrates, but why is gluten advertised as ‘bad for you?’

Some people cannot tolerate gluten because they have what’s called celiac disease, according to former Harvard editor Holly Strawbridge.

However, Holly goes on to explain…

People who are sensitive to gluten may feel better, but a larger portion will derive no significant benefit from the practice. They’ll simply waste their money because these products are expensive,” says Dr. Leffler, who is also an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

‘Going gluten-free just because? Here’s what you need to know’ by Holly Strawbridge on February 20, 2013, Harvard Health Publishing, health.harvard.edu

If you don’t have celiac disease there’s no reason why you should avoid gluten. And as stated above, going along with this ‘gluten-free’ trend is more than likely just costing you more money, for nothing.

In addition…

About 1 in 100 people — about 1 percent — have celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disease that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is ingested.

About .4 percent of people have a doctor-diagnosed wheat allergy, according to a 2006 study.

‘9 Things You Should Know Before Going Gluten-Free’ Celiac Disease Foundation, celiac.org

Now, here’s the problem with many of the foods labeled ‘gluten-free.’ They’re missing essential nutrients (ex: fiber, calcium, iron, riboflavin, and niacin, to name a few).

So if you do, by chance, have this disease, make sure you’re taking supplements so that you’re not deficient in these vital nutrients. In fact, as a weightlifter or bodybuilder, you probably need more of these nutrients than the average person that doesn’t train hard.

TIP: Don’t follow these types of diet trends ‘just because.’ Do your own research. And of course, let your doctor tell you if you have any food allergies, diseases, or need to stay away from certain types of foods.

Beyond all of that, just eat as a normal bodybuilder would!


First, multigrain and whole grain are not the same. Not even close.

Tara Britan from the University of California breaks it down like this…

Whole wheat refers to the whole wheat grain, which means that the whole grain must still include the endosperm, bran, and germ, and have not been “refined” or “processed” yet. This essentially means you’re getting what you pay for: 100 percent whole wheat bread.

‘Multigrain vs Whole Wheat Bread: Are They Equally Healthy?’ by Tara Britan, spoonuniversity.com

She goes on to say that the problem with multigrain is that some of the grains used may be stripped of essential vitamins and nutrients.

That said, a multigrain product could have far less fiber than whole grain. And fiber is especially crucial for muscle gains as it helps with digestion (remember, we eat a lot!).

However, this doesn’t mean that multigrain is unhealthy. It all depends on the types of grains being used.

TIP: If you’re buying a multigrain food, such as bread, be sure to read the label and see what types of grains are listed first. If you see anything other than whole grains, leave it on the shelf.

Made with Real Fruit and No Sugar Added

Food - No Sugar added ice cream bars

Unless it’s your post-workout meal, no matter what your goals are you always want to reduce the amount of sugar you eat. So it’s no surprise that labels like ‘made with real fruit’ and ‘no sugar added’ are popular on certain foods.

The problem with ‘made with real fruit’ claims is that they are not regulated. Sure, it could have some real fruit in it but it could also contain refined sugars or other ingredients not desired.

Similarly, you see many foods that have ‘no sugar added’ on the label. At a glance, this sounds awesome.

However, oftentimes these foods contain artificial sweeteners and may also be high in sugar even though no sugar was added.

Foods with these claims are often high in calories and carbohydrates. And they’re typically not the types of carbs and calories beneficial for building muscle.

TIP: To satisfy your sweet tooth, just eat a piece of real fruit. At least with real fruit, you’re getting vitamins and nutrients without any additives.

Also, try adding real fruit to your post-workout smoothies, like frozen blueberries.

Fortified or Enriched

Food - enriched and fortified

Fortified and enriched are exactly what they sound like. It means certain vitamins and nutrients were added to the food.

This usually means that the original food lacked these nutrients (or a sufficient amount), to begin with. Or the original nutrients have been extracted during the processing of the food.

In some cases, this can be beneficial. Milk is a great example…

In the 1930s, the United States began to fortify milk with vitamin D in an effort to eradicate rickets. The disease — caused by vitamin D deficiency that softens and weakens the bones — was rampant at the time among poor children, particularly in northern U.S. cities.

‘100 Objects That Shaped Public Health’ Global Health NOW, globalhealthnow.org

Several other foods are fortified with vitamins and nutrients for similar reasons. Fortifying and enriching already healthy or semi-healthy foods has been shown to increase health over time.

However, one of the issues is that some fortified foods are highly processed. When this is the case, you could be getting additives and preservatives that you really don’t want to eat on a regular basis.

Protein bars are a great example. Although there are some awesome and healthy protein bars that are fortified with additional vitamins and nutrients, there are others that contain unwanted ingredients due to over-processing.

TIP: This is another case where it’s imperative to pay attention to the label of your foods.

Be wary when you see a long list of ingredients and make sure to do your own research on each ingredient in question.

Trans Fat-Free and Cholesterol-Free

Food - Bread buns no trans fat

These two labels are often used interchangeably. Trans fat essentially raises bad cholesterol levels and can cause a long list of other health problems.

Trans fat also lowers your good cholesterol. For those reasons, it is considered to be the worst type of fat you can eat…

Trans fat is considered the worst type of fat you can eat. Unlike other dietary fats, trans fat — also called trans-fatty acids — raises your “bad” cholesterol and also lowers your “good” cholesterol.

A diet laden with trans fat increases your risk of heart disease, the leading killer of adults.

‘Trans fat is double trouble for your heart health’ by the Mayo Clinic Staff, mayoclinic.org

Trans fat seems to be prevalent in many desserts like donuts, fried foods, and some frozen foods (like frozen pizza). They’re used to preserve shelf life and enhance the flavor.

If you were to completely avoid one thing in your diet, trans fats would be it. They’re just not conducive to your mass-gaining goals.

So, what about foods that are labeled as trans-fat free or cholesterol-free?

Here’s the problem…

If the food manufacturer has to put that on the label then it’s obvious that it’s a food you would expect to have trans fat in it.

In many cases, these foods have other substitutes for that trans fat and those substitutes aren’t always healthy ones (or even better ones). More than often, these foods are high in saturated fat.

You do need some saturated fat to increase testosterone. And, of course, it’s better than eating trans fat. But you certainly don’t want to overdo it.

Tips on What to Eat Instead

plant based food free ranges eggs

Although it’s almost impossible to stay away from unhealthy foods 100% of the time, there are some simple actions you can take to eat better and limit the bad stuff:

  • Shop at your local farmer’s markets for produce
  • Do most of your grocery shopping at the outer edges of the grocery stores as this is where the fresh and truly organic foods can be found
  • Minimize buying foods that come in boxes and some cans
  • Minimize buying frozen foods
  • Be wary of labels with a long list of ingredients (these usually contain unhealthy preservatives, additives, and such).
  • Look for things like grass-fed for meats and free-range for eggs
  • Buy organic!

Also, keeping track of your macros can be helpful. And you don’t necessarily have to be super-strict about it. But knowing about how much protein, carbs, and fats you want for each meal can really help you stay on track.

Many of the ‘bad’ foods will be extremely high in carbs or fats. So you know right away just by looking at the label if that will fit into your meal plan or not.

Another thing is to keep your diet simple. This will not only help you eat better but can also lower your monthly grocery bill when you stick to nutrient-dense, muscle-building foods.

To further help with your mass-building nutrition plan, be sure to read this post next: 5,000 Calorie Meal Plan for Mass Gains.

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Excuses Don’t Build Muscle,


About the author

Jason Stallworth

Hi, I'm Jason Stallworth and I created The Muscle Program in 2010 for the purpose of helping you build muscle. I know first-hand how weight training and being in the gym has shaped my life in more way than one. And here is where I share that experience with you so that you can continue pushing yourself and becoming the best version of yourself each day!