Food Labels


“All Natural” was the second most common claim made on new food products in 2008. Unfortunately, both the FDA and USDA have vague rules about this phrase, and have let manufacturers that incorrectly use this claim remain in the marketplace. Products like Hunt’s Tomato Sauce and “All Natural” Snapple Tea contain citric acid as an additive.  Hunt’s Tomato Sauce’s claim as being “All Natural” is even more misleading considering the product is made of reconstituted tomato paste, and not whole tomatoes crushed soon after being picked, as many would assume. Some products containing high-fructose corn syrup (made through complex chemical industrial processes) are even able to get away with the “All Natural” label.

Certain “All Natural” deli meats have ingredients that are clearly additives one would not find if they cooked and sliced up their own natural turkey at home. The USDA also lets meat and poultry products claim to be “All Natural” when injected with beef or chicken broth, which not only increases the sodium levels to unnatural and less healthy levels, but the water inflates the weight of the product, increasing the price.   “All Natural” is not a label enforced strictly enough at this point to be trusted.

“0g Trans Fat” is highlighted on the front of many products by using bold imagery, sometimes with banners and exclamation points. This distraction draws attention from the fact that many of these products are extremely high in saturated fat, misleading the consumer into believing they are buying a healthy product. The FDA designates any serving with over 4g to be high in saturated fat. Products like Edy’s Dibs Bite Sized Frozen Snacks or Hot Pockets boast “0g Trans Fat” but contain excessive levels of saturated fat (16g and 7g per serving, respectively).

The USDA recommends that consumers “make half your grains whole.” Many products emphasize “Made With Whole Grains” on packaging, and even use dark brown colors and deceptive names to indicate a product is associated with the health benefits of whole grains. Unfortunately, most of these food items actually have ordinary refined wheat flour as their main ingredient, as they are not required to disclose the percentage of whole grains versus refined grains.

Although still a vague indicator as to the amount, one safeguard is to check the listed ingredients. Ingredients must be listed in order of predominance, so if something like “Enriched Wheat Flour” is first, but “Whole Wheat Flour” is further down the list, you can be sure there isn’t a large amount of whole grain in the product.

Some food manufacturers take advantage of consumers’ desire to eat more fruits and vegetables by using misleading statements on their products’ packaging. Many fruit snacks display images of a variety of fruits that aren’t found anywhere in the ingredients. Betty Crocker’s Strawberry Splash Fruit Gushers claim to be made of real fruit, but contain no strawberries whatsoever, and are actually made from pear concentrate, red no. 40 dye, and are almost half sugar by weight. Other companies fool the consumer with their product names, like Knorr Chicken Broccoli fettuccine noodles, which actually contain more salt than dried broccoli. Synder’s of Hanover Eat Smart Veggie Crisps claim to be “A bountiful blend of potato, spinach, and tomato chips,” even though there is more potassium chloride than spinach, and virtually none of the vitamins and minerals found in spinach and tomatoes.

In the European Union, it is required that specific percentages are disclosed of ingredients or a category of ingredients that are associated with the name of the product or emphasized on the packaging with words or images. Unfortunately, the FDA has no similar requirements, leaving the American consumer a victim to deceptive advertising.

The USDA recommends people limit their added sugar consumption to 10 teaspoons (40g) per day (based on a 2,000 calorie diet), about the amount in one 12oz can of Coca-Cola. Unfortunately, added sugars and their daily value are not disclosed on the Nutrition Facts Panel, making it very difficult for consumers to determine the amount of sugar that has been added to products like yogurt, canned fruit, and juice drinks.

Additionally, while the FDA regulates claims like “sugar free,” “reduced” and “no added sugars,” there is no such measure governing “low sugar.” Companies can label their highly sugared foods as “Fat Free” without having to direct the consumer to check the sugar content. Companies have begun using their own terms, like “lightly sweetened,” which may convey to shoppers that the product is low in sugar, despite the term not being regulated by any federal rules. An example is Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats that, despite being “lightly sweetened,” contain 20% sugar by weight (12g per serving).

Serving sizes specified by the FDA in 1993 have become outdated, as they were based on USDA-developed surveys from the 70s and 80s. Many consumers eat larger portion sizes than they did then, and nutritional information should be adjusted appropriately, rather than requiring the consumer to do the math. For example, the standard serving size listed for ice cream is ½ cup and 1 cup for soup, though most people eat much more than that in a single serving. Additionally, many items that are usually consumed in a single serving, such as single packaged vending machine items (bottles of soda, fruit snacks, packages of nuts), are listed as having multiple servings, and give misleading nutritional information based on such.

The NLEA mandate requires nutrition content to be based on the amount generally consumed, not the amount that should be consumed based on public health recommendations, with the expectation that health-conscious consumers would lower their intake of food items with high daily values of undesirable nutrients if that information was presented clearly.

Though the FDA must approve any health claims pertaining to a relationship between particular nutrients and diseases, manufacturers have worked around this rule by using ambiguous and unregulated claims that a nutrient can benefit the normal structure or function of a bodily system. Some of the most notorious offenders are statements like “helps maintain a healthy heart” or “supports the immune system.” These deceptive statements are not FDA approved, and mislead consumers by making them think the product does something out of the ordinary for their health, when in fact there is no scientific research to support it. Unfortunately, most studies have shown that consumers can’t distinguish between unapproved structure/function claims like those mentioned, and regulated, FDA verified health claims like “may help reduce the risk of heart disease” or “may reduce the risk of cancer.”

Caffeine is an addictive drug in many foods and beverages, yet there are no requirements to disclose its amount in products. Too much caffeine may increase the risk of miscarriage and infertility in women (over 200-300mg per day), and more than 200mg of caffeine can produce increased anxiety, jitteriness, and upset stomach for many people. Caffeine also interferes with the brain’s natural sleep regulator, and those who regularly consume it often develop a physical dependence.

While some companies voluntarily provide caffeine amounts, there are many products that contain surprising levels of caffeine, undisclosed to the consumer. A single serving container of Dannon Coffee Yogurt contains 30mg of caffeine, and a single serving of Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate (5 squares) contains 31mg. Starbuck’s bottled Frappuccino contains 96mg of caffeine and some energy drinks contain anywhere from 160 to 280mg. Clearly, a person’s daily intake of caffeine can quickly reach unhealthy levels if they are not able to monitor it.

Many products boast of their fiber content without distinguishing where the fiber is coming from. Traditional sources of intact fibers from whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits are associated with lowering blood cholesterol and blood sugar, as well as helping with regularity. But many products, like certain ice creams, yogurts, and juices, brag about their fiber content even though it is gained from isolated fibers, such as purified powders like inulin, polydextrose, and maltodextrin, that do not have the same health benefits of traditional intact fibers.

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