10 Food Label Lies
10 Food Label Lies
Don’t spend extra money buying into marketing hype and misinformation. Look for food claims and labels you can trust.
No added growth hormones
The lie: Usually, you’ll see this claim in ads for chicken, turkey, or even pork, along with milk and beef labels. Why is it misleading? The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t allow farmers to feed hormones to poultry or pork. In fact, if you read the fine print, any poultry or pork product that is advertised as “hormone free” must legally be accompanied by the disclaimer “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” Producers of those meats use antibiotics instead, which speed growth in the same way as hormones; the USDA calls this “increasing feed efficiency.” Even when you see this label on beef or dairy products—products where hormones are legally allowed—it hasn’t been verified by a third party, so you’re really taking the food marketer’s word for it.
To get the real thing: Buy certified organic meat and dairy, which are free of both added growth hormones and antibiotics, and organic poultry products. Or, buy from small farmers whom you can ask about how they raise and medicate their animals.
The lie: The implications of this label can make anyone feel good about their farm-fresh, straight-from-the-dirt…can of powdered lemonade. Unfortunately, there isn’t any official definition of “natural,” except when it comes to meat. The USDA has defined it as any product “containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product).” Their definition doesn’t, however, make any statements about how animals were raise or whether the animals were fed hormones or antibiotics. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates fruits, vegetables, and most processed foods, doesn’t have any official definition for the term. Essentially, a product can be as “natural” as the manufacturer would like you to believe and may contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and artificial sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup.
To get the real thing: Again, buying organic is your best protection. Alternatively, you can simply buy more fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts; the fewer ingredients involved, the less you have to worry about any of them being artificial.
The lie: See this label, and bucolic scenes of grassy fields with healthy, happy cows probably come to mind. Think again. “Grass-fed” is a term that’s sort-of regulated by the USDA, who has defined it to mean that an animal ate 100 percent grass and no corn or soy and had continuous access to pasture throughout its life. But the USDA allows anyone to use that terminology, provided a meat producer submits documentation saying that’s what he or she is doing; no farm inspections are required to meet the definition. Furthermore, before this rule went into place in 2006, anyone could use the term “grass-fed” on food products, and those people were grandfathered in under the new rule, whether they meet the requirements or not. A final kicker? The rule applies only to cattle and other ruminant animals, but you’ll often see it on packages for pork or chicken—animals that can’t survive on a grass-only diet.
To get the real thing: If you see the words “U.S. Grass-fed” accompanied by a “USDA Process Verified” shield, you’re in the clear. USDA verification requires actual farm visits, and it means that someone other than a farmer has witnessed that animals are eating grass. Or look for the American Grassfed Association certification, which has even stricter standards on “grass-fed” than the USDA. A third option: Buy your meat at the farmer’s market, where the farmer who raised the meat can give you a detailed rundown of what his or her animals eat every day and who will allow you to visit the farm yourself.
The lie: Like “no added hormones,” “antibiotic free” is a meaningless term, and it’s actually illegal to use it on packages, according to the USDA. Manufacturers often skirt the issue by using phrases like “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics administered.” Furthermore, some meat producers use those phrases while dousing animals with anti-microbials, drugs that work identically to antibiotics but are defined differently by the FDA. And from an animal welfare perspective, “antibiotic free” isn’t always a good thing. Operators of big concentrated animal feeding operations may overuse antibiotics to fatten up chickens and hogs faster, but small farmers save antibiotics for when animals get sick, as they should be used.
To get the real thing: Under organic regulations, any animal treated with antibiotics must be removed from organic production (it can still be sold as a conventionally raised product, though), and purchasing organic meat and dairy is the only way to truly avoid them. Or, find a local farmer who uses antibiotics on his or her herd responsibly.
The lie: The FDA allows food manufacturers to use averages for the calorie counts, salt content and fat grams (and any other information on the Nutrition Facts panel) of their foods, and food manufacturers are allowed to be off by as much as 20 percent. So that 500-calorie frozen dinner you’re eating could have as many as 600 calories. If every meal you ate had 100 extra calories, you’d gain an additional 30 pounds this year. Another sticky label? Trans fats. The FDA allows manufacturers to put “0” if the amount of trans fats per serving is below .5 grams. “That’s a quarter of a day’s worth,” says Jayne Hurley, RD, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who notes that 2 grams is what health experts suggest should be your daily limit.
To get the real thing: Avoid packaged foods. The foods without “Nutrition Facts” labels—fruits and vegetables—are the healthiest foods. When you do buy them, read ingredient labels, not nutrition labels, to avoid trans fats. And avoid any product with partially hydrogenated oils listed. “If there’s no partially hydrogenated oil, the trans-fat content really is zero,” Hurley says.
The lie: Gluten-free foods are becoming one of the fastest-growing food categories on store shelves, according to Nielsen Company, jumping a whopping 74 percent from 2004 to 2009. But buying foods based solely on a label shouting “gluten-free” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re avoiding gluten, much to the dismay of the 3 million Americans suffering from celiac disease (which requires avoiding gluten to avoid getting sick) and the other 18 million who suffer from gluten sensitivity. The FDA has never created an actual regulated definition of the claim, despite the fact that advocacy groups have been pushing them to do so for 10 years. While some gluten-free products may indeed be free of wheat gluten, Pam King, director of operations and development at the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland, says that not all are free of rye or barley gluten, which is just as problematic. “And honestly, there is no such thing as zero gluten because of cross-contamination,” she adds, referring to food processing facilities that make both wheat-based and gluten-free foods.
To get the real thing: There are currently two organizations that certify food to be free of wheat, barley, and rye gluten at levels that cause problems for people trying to avoid gluten: the Gluten-Free Certification Organization and the other is the Celiac Sprue Association. Gluten can hide behind vague labels like “artificial flavoring,” so buy certified products if you’re really trying to avoid gluten.
The lie: If one grain is good, “multi” grains must be better, right? Yes, except when all those multigrains are just multiple versions of unhealthy refined grains. And that could be what you’re getting when you reach for that loaf of multigrain bread. The FDA has never explicitly stated that anything labeled “multi-grain” must contain the whole version of all grains that are used, and food marketers like to use the claim on wheat products because it makes their products seem healthier than they are.
To get the real thing: “Multi-grain” isn’t always bad; some companies do in fact use whole grains in multigrain breads, cereals and other baked goods. It just means you have to read the ingredients list and make sure the word “whole” precedes ever grain listed. Or look for the “100% whole grain” claim. That is regulated by the FDA and would mean that all grains used in the product are whole.
Front-of-Package Labeling Systems
The lie: They may seem like a useful tool for finding the healthiest foods on the shelf. But the 20, mostly industry-created, front-of-package labeling systems that have been launched in the past few years aren’t trying to make finding healthy food easy for you, says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. They’re just trying to sell you products. “Food companies have been setting their own nutrition criteria for evaluating their very own products and identifying the ‘better-for-you’ or ‘more nutritious’ products with special front-of-package logos. By company standards, many of their products qualify for the logos,” she says. FOP labels are a tool for selling, not buying, she adds, and often highlight the good (levels of fiber, vitamins and minerals) and ignore the bad (fat, sodium and added sugar).
To get the real thing: The FDA got annoyed by these standards when “better for you” labels started appearing on Froot Loops and Fudgsicles, and the agency asked an independent advisory board to evaluate the claims and come up with a better front-of-package labeling system. That board determined that consumers need to care about four things, which may or may not appear on a front-of-package label: calories, saturated and trans fats, added sugars and sodium. But since Nutrition Facts panels can be unreliable measures of those ingredients, your best bet is to avoid packaged foods altogether and opt for whole foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and unprocessed meats.
The lie: More of a food packaging claim than a food marketing claim, “BPA Free” is appearing on a growing number of plastic food containers, food service items, and canned food packaging (nearly all canned foods contain a plastic lining made from BPA), hoping to lull shoppers into a sense of security that the food packaging isn’t leaching a toxic chemical linked to reproductive problems, heart disease, and some types of cancer into their food. Those items may not be leaching BPA—but they could be leaching some other damaging chemical. A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that all plastics leached chemicals that interfere with your reproductive system, some even more potent than BPA.
To get the real thing: Opt for products packaged in glass or aseptic cartons (like those used for boxed soups and soy milk), and bring your own glass or stainless steel to-go containers with you when you eat out. There is one exception to the BPA-Free claim you can trust: Eden Foods. That company packages its beans, rice and chilies in BPA-free cans that are lined with a plant-based (plastic-free) resin, and is currently the only company in the US that does so.
The lie: Organic foods are soaring in popularity, even in spite of a bad economy, a recent survey found. One major reason for this trend is the increasing evidence on what pesticides such as Roundup and atrazine, the two most widely used pesticides in agriculture, are doing to our bodies: interfering with our hormones, increasing the risk of diseases such as Parkinson’s and cancer, and causing birth defects and attention-deficit disorder in children. So naturally, big food producers want a cut of the profits—but they don’t want to pay for the added cost of organic certification. So they try to fool shoppers into thinking that “pesticide-free” or “free from pesticide residues” is just as good as organic. Some of those foods even feature certifications from independent third parties attesting to the fact that the produce has been tested and found to be “free of pesticide residues.” But the Consumers Union doesn’t agree. According to their “Greener Choices” Ecolabel guide, many of the pesticide-free rating and certification programs out there use the same detection limits as the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning that those certified foods contain the same levels of pesticides as all the other non-organic produce in the market.
To get the real thing: Support food companies that support organic. The only way to protect yourself and your family from the damages of synthetic pesticides is to buy certified organic foods that were grown without them.