The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food labels to promote good health among the general public, however food labels can be quite confusing and can make the smartest person scratch his head and the most gullible person raise his eyebrow. With the marketing muscle behind processed food, along with loosely regulated laws that govern food labeling, there are a great deal of things wrong with food labels from hyperbolic health claims, to confusing ingredient lists. To help prepare you for your next visit to the grocery store, below are four common ways food labels lie.
Fancy, Over Exaggerated Health Claims
I’m sure all of us are skeptical when we see claims from a pack of candy that’s made with “Real Fruit,” a jar of chocolate-hazelnut spread that’s “part of a balanced meal,” a bag of potato chips that are made with “Natural” potatoes, a bottle of a sugary drink that’s “Fat-Free,” and a box of sugary cereal that “Can Help Lower Cholesterol and Reduce the Risk of Heart Diseases.” Well… maybe not all of us, there was a mom who fed her four-year-old daughter lots of Nutella, thinking it was healthy, and later sued the company. Likewise, we all certainly get weak at the knees when faced with tasty foods, and sometimes we might choose to believe those health claims so that we feel less guilty about eating junk food—despite them coming nowhere near passing the taste and sniff test.
However, these health claims are dishonest. For candies that are made with “Real Fruit,” the only fruit-like ingredient is fruit-juice concentrate, which (according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans) is sugar. Furthermore, other primary ingredients include corn syrup, which is sugar, and you know… sugar. The candy might contain Red No. 40, which is “strawberry” colored, but nevertheless, it’s still not strawberries.
For chips that are made with “Natural” potatoes, the potato might be real, but they are still processed, high in fat, and have little nutritional content. The word “natural” isn’t regulated by the FDA, so companies use that word to get us to think “fresh,” “healthy,” and “minimally processed.” In other words, just because a product is made with a real ingredient, doesn’t make it healthy—natural candy that is made with natural cane juice instead of white sugar is still bad for you.
Something that has a “Fat-free” label looks healthy because well… it’s free of fat, but you have to look at the context. For example, a two liter bottle of grape juice claiming it is “Fat-free,” while truthful, isn’t really helpful. Grapes are naturally “fat-free,” so grape juice is and always will be “fat-free.” Fat is not the only thing that leads to weight gain. In this case, when looking at sweet foods and drinks, it’s better to look at its sugar content.
For foods that work as medicine like preventing heart deceases, curing cancer, increasing your IQ, and making you better in bed, these claims are a bit overstated. While the FDA does allow manufacturers to make pre-approved “qualified health claims” if the food meets a certain healthy criteria, such as being low in fat, cholesterol, and/or sodium; manufacturers somehow manage to use this to make overly great, fancy claims. For example, gummy bears—even though they’re mostly made of sugar—are fortified with vitamins, so gummy bear manufacturers might claim to “support your child’s immunity.” While it’s true that a deficiency in those vitamins could negatively impact your immune system, there’s no proof that gummy bears improves your child’s health or prevent diseases. The point is—food is not medicine!
Confusing Expiration Dates
Have you ever looked at your pack of ham’s “sell-by” date, sniffed the meat, thought to yourself, eh… better safe than sorry, and tossed it in your garbage bin? Due to confusing dates on food labels, billions of pounds of food are thrown away each year, hurting not only our wallets, but the environment as well. In my previous post, I attempted to make black and white of all these “sell by,” “best if used by,” “use by,” and “born on” dates, but nevertheless, food expiration date labeling should be neater, more universal, and easier to understand.
Flawed and Outdated Daily Values are Harmful to Kids
Most of us are familiar with the percent Daily Value numbers on the nutrition panel on food packages, but what most of us don’t know is that those numbers are only for adults and were calculated in the 60s. At that time, the FDA’s goal was to help people avoid nutritional deficiencies, but such deficiencies aren’t much of a problem today, yet manufacturers excessively fortify their products with vitamins so that they could make health claims on their packages, which then leads to an increase in sales. Just look at the labels on cereals, oat meals, snack bars, and fruity candies. This puts millions of American children and pregnant women at risk of over consuming vitamin A, zinc, and niacin. The over consumption of these vitamins could have negative consequences on the body such as liver damage and bone abnormalities. Parents should be wary of packaged foods that are excessively fortified with vitamins.
If you grocery shop for a household with a food allergy, you probably examine all the labels on food boxes and packages. You’ll find the “contains” statement on packages and easily avoid putting items into your shopping cart that include the appropriate allergens. You’ll also notice that some packages have the “may contain,” “made on shared equipment with,” and “manufactured in a facility that also process” statements, so you would think that the packages with no mention of eggs, peanuts, milk, and wheat are completely safe…right? Not necessarily, because cross-contamination warnings are completely voluntary. While the FDA requires manufacturers to list milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, wheat, soybean, fish, or shellfish in plain English in the ingredient statement or in a “contains” statement, there is no regulation that requires manufacturers to warn consumers of the potential risks of cross-contamination. If you or someone in your house is severely allergic to something, do not make the assumption that packaged foods without the “contain” and “may contain” statements are safe.
Devious Ingredient lists
After all the problems mentioned above, you would think that the only straight-forward thing about food labels is their ingredients lists. Unfortunately, even something as simple as an ingredient list can be very deceptive. The thing about lists in general is that it’s most logical to list things in order from most to least. By this law of common perception, that double fudge brownie in the bakery aisle of your local grocery store should be nutritious because the first few ingredients listed on the package is wheat flour, eggs, and milk. In reality, the biggest ingredient in that brownie is sugar. Just add up all the sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar cane juice, juice concentrate, and all the other different-names-for-sugar ingredients and that brownie will be one-third sugar. Until nutrition labels and ingredient lists separate major ingredients from minor ingredients, making smart and healthy purchases of packaged foods is a pain.
A Simple Way to Avoid Deception?—Home Cooking
Processed food companies spend millions of dollars on marketers to persuade us into buying their products. Major and minor ingredients are twisted, health claims are blown up, and health risks are swept under the rug. As consumers, we can use the tools above—along with a chemistry kit—to decipher food labels, or we can just simply minimize the amount of processed food we eat by cooking at home with whole fresh ingredients. Cooking at home is one of the few ways to be absolutely sure about what goes into your food and that’s where Fitsme comes in. Fitsme can help you discover recipes that fit your lifestyle. With our Food Personality Builder you can tell us the foods you like, the foods you could do without, and the foods you must avoid, and our app will curate a set of recipes that accommodate your allergies, diet restrictions, and taste buds.
For those who must keep a close eye on what goes into your food, see how we can make your life a little easier by signing up today.
By Brian Van