Nowadays a trip to the supermarket can mislead even the smartest shoppers. Food manufacturers toss around buzzwords like “100% Natural”, “Made With Real Fruit”, “0g Trans Fat“, “Immune Support”, “No High Fructose Corn Syrup” or “No Artificial Flavors” on their food labels as a clever way of making not-so-healthy items remind you of something that is wholesome and homemade. Truth be told, food companies have been very crafty in taking any critique of industrial food and turning it into their next marketing campaign. Remember, they have absolutely ZERO interest for your health and they haven’t found a way to align your health with their bottom line profits. And until they do, they will continue to use eye-catching package design and product labels as a marketing hype only to seduce you into believing their product is good for you.
How is the FDA protecting us?
It might be surprising to you to find out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require foods to be tested for nutritional content accuracy, they only check to see whether or not the Nutritional Facts panel is present. In 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report about the accuracy of food labels (http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08597.pdf). According to this report, between 2000 and 2006, about 24 percent of food labels were found to be labeled inaccurately and the data for 2007 was missing because the person who performed the study retired that year.
Furthermore, based on the current law, the FDA allows food companies to practically self-govern and estimate average values for carbohydrates, fats, proteins, etc. on any product based on the ingredient list using a 20 percent margin error. And, while the FDA estimates that roughly ten percent of food labels contain inaccuracies when tested by a laboratory, most grocery and restaurant foods are MUCH higher than advertised in fats, carbohydrates, sugars and sodium.
When a product is found to be inaccurately labeled, the FDA penalty for this kind of violation is pretty negligible, with little incentive for the manufacturer to comply: information about the food is placed in a database and the product is still allowed on the shelves. If there is a second violation detected within 60 days, then the product may be detained. The catch: since food testing is done infrequently, it seems unlikely that a second violation would be caught within 60 days.
While this can be frustrating for people who are trying to eat healthy or lose weight, it can have deadly consequences for people with serious allergies or health problems such as diabetes.
20 Claims on Food Labels Exposed!
Here are a few meaningless health claims to watch out for on the front of the package that say absolutely nothing about the real nutritional value of what’s inside:
100% Natural or All Natural
The term “natural” has no regulatory definition and unfortunately it’s often perceived by consumers as equivalent to organic or healthy, which it isn’t. What adds to the confusion is that the two agencies tasked to govern food in United States have different approaches of a once-straightforward word.
According to the FDA, it is difficult to define a food product as “natural” when the food has probably been processed during manufacturing and is “no longer the product of the earth”. While the FDA is reluctant to develop a non-ambiguous definition for use of the term “natural” or its derivatives, the agency has not objected to its use if a product is only minimally processed and doesn’t contain any artificial flavorings, colorings, preservatives, or other synthetic substances.
On the other hand, the USDA restricts the use of the term “natural” to the processing and packaging manner of the end product. However, this label does not include any standards about farm practices such as what the type of food was given to the animals (genetically modified feed, antibiotics) or under what conditions they were raised (factory farm, room to roam free, access to the outdoors etc). The agency says that meat and poultry can be labeled as “natural” if contain “no artificial ingredients or added color and are only minimally processed.
Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.” However, some not-so-natural practices like plumping chicken with a salt water solution or flavoring such as teriyaki sauce to give it a healthier appearance and better taste are acceptable if disclosed properly.
0g Trans Fat
The FDA requires manufacturers to list trans fats only if they are present in amounts greater than 0.5 grams (1/2 gram) per serving, anything below that is not necessary to be disclosed. The American Heart Association advises limiting trans fat consumption to less than 1% of the daily calorie intake (which is equivalent to no more than 2 grams of trans fat per day when adhering to a standard diet of 2000 calories a day). To protect your health carefully inspect labels and avoid ingredients such as shortening or (partially or not) hydrogenated vegetable oils even if the label claims “0g Trans Fat”.
Made with Real Fruit, Made with Real Honey, Made with Real Cheese
Just because the package shows a picture of a fruit, honey pot with dipper, cheese block, etc. it doesn’t mean the they have to be in there in their real form as found in nature. Food manufacturers opt for cheaper substitutes like fruit puree from concentrate or fruit powder, honey powder or a highly processed concoction of various dyes and seasonings made from cheese powder, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6, and colored spices to give a cheesy effect. Usually such products are loaded with corn syrup and sugar.
Health promoting claims that sound like: Immune Support, Bone Health, 100% of Daily Value Vitamin C, Excellent Source of Calcium, Heart Healthy
This is the kind of clever wordsmithing that gets around current federal rules about health claims and suggests that certain processed foods will help protect you from disease, even if they won’t. These claims usually mean that the food was either made with something that once had health promoting properties in it like fruits and vegetables or that the food was fortified with some artificial vitamins. In the end, water, heat, air, and light can be the enemies of essential nutrients in foods. Research shows that microwaving destroys up to 97% of important nutrients like vitamins and antioxidants. So if health is what you are after, microwaving defeats the whole purpose.The less you cook your food ingredients and the less they are processed, the healthier they really are for you!
Nowadays you see this claim all over the place, but what does it really mean?! Presently, this claim is not regulated by the FDA. Many food producers claim their products contain whole grains even if they don’t hit the 51% limit (or 8 grams) of whole grain ingredients per serving required by the Whole Grains Council. This limit is mandatory in order for the product to get the official stamp from the council posted on the package certifying the whole grain content. Most of the times products making such claims are made from ordinary unbleached wheat flour as the main ingredient while whole wheat flour is further down on the list. This indicates that whole grains make up is an insignificant portion of the product.
This simply means that no more than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving can be added during processing. However, food manufacturers often break up the sugar into smaller amounts of lesser-known sugars or natural sweeteners making the food appear healthier. However, these sugars contain similar amounts of calories as real sugar contributing to a myriad of health issues. Another problem is that real sugar is often replaced with artificial sweeteners, which can damage your health even more quickly than sugar.
According to the FDA, fat-free means less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. However, eating fat won’t make you fat, but eating too many calories can contribute to weight gain. In most cases “low-fat” or “fat-free” foods have just as many calories as their full-fat versions. And that is due to the fact that by removing the fat, the flavor is also being removed. Many companies often use this claim as a smoke screen to give the illusion of health as they replace harmless fats with low-performing carbs such as sugar in order to make the food palatable again. Don’t be afraid of healthy fats! In the end and opposite from sugar, fat is satiating so you’ll eat less and enjoy it more.
Reduced Sugar or Reduced Fat
No Nitrites or Nitrates Added
Food preservatives such as Nitrates or Nitrites are usually found in processed meats like hot dogs, sausages, lunch meats, bacon, etc and have been associated with increasing risk of certain cancers by 67 percent (http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/97/19/1458.full). So check those labels before you buy!
No High Fructose Corn Syrup
It looks like the word is out about just how bad high fructose corn syrup really is and that’s a good thing! But be aware of its replacements! Most often manufacturers replace it with other sweeteners that are most likely to come from corn (which is genetically modified in most cases these days) or just plain sugar which is equally as bad for you.
No Artificial Flavors, Synthetic Colors or Preservatives
These statements are not regulated by the FDA and are targeted to appeal to the health-conscious consumer and do not reflect nutritional content. A home cook would use additives like sugar, salt, spices, oils, vinegars and other condiments to preserve and enhance flavor. However food manufacturers know that consumers frown upon certain industrial ingredients and they may attempt to hide them under generic names such as “spices” or “flavorings,” making it impossible for the average consumer to determine what exactly are they eating.
Nevertheless, the Non-GMO Project Verified is U.S. and Canada’s only non-profit independent organization for third party testing and labeling for Non-GMO food products with an Action Threshold of 0.9%. Products bearing their seal are guaranteed to have gone through a verification process for GMO avoidance.
Cage Free Eggs
As the claim implies, hens laying eggs labeled as “cage free” are uncaged and able to freely roam inside a building or enclosed area, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. Cage free facilities are not necessarily considered to be “cruelty free”, however, the hens can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting, perching, dust-bathing and spreading their wings, behaviors denied to hens confined in cages.
Free Range or Free Roaming
USDA has defined a standard for “free range” for some poultry products, however not for “free range” egg production. Typically, the free-range standard encompasses the cage free requirements and in addition the hens have some degree of outdoor access. As it stands, there are no specific standards for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access. Presently, there are no regulations regarding what the birds can be fed and this claim is not necessarily considered to be “cruelty free”.
No Artificial Growth Hormones, Milk From Cows Not Treated with rBST
Current USDA regulations prohibit the use of hormones or steroids in poultry, pork, or goat. However, they allow the use of a number of hormones on beef. Beef products labeled with such claims is considered to be free from any added hormones over the lifetime of the animal. When these labels are used on dairy products it mean the cows were not treated with rBGH or rBST, genetically engineered hormones that increase milk production. However, these claims do not cover standards about living conditions of the animals (type of food were they fed (genetically modified feed or not), antibiotics to promote growth or humane treatment). There may be some verification of these claims, but not necessarily.
USDA Grass Fed and American Grassfed
According to the USDA Grass Fed standards, these animals have access to the outdoors and are able to engage in some natural behaviors, such as grazing. They are mainly fed a diet solely comprised of grass and forage. This certification only requires access to the outdoors during the growing season (approx. six months out the the year depending on location) and is not necessarily considered to be “cruelty free”. Producers must submit affidavits to the USDA that support their animal production claims in order to receive approval for this label.
A more rigorous certification can be accredited by the American Grassfed Association (AGA) which standards mirror the feeding practice of the USDA verification program but go much further in encompassing more attributes such as no antibiotics, no synthetic hormones, no confinement and high animal welfare. Compliance to AGA requirements is verified through third-party on-farm auditing from Animal Welfare Approved. Grass is a cow’s natural food, making grass fed beef the best and safest choice out there.
Pasture Raised or Pastured
A claim that livestock is “pasture raised” means animals have had continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life. Since the USDA has not formulated a final standard regarding pasture raised livestock claims, there is no way to ensure the accuracy of this claim.
Made with Organic Ingredients
Without the USDA certification seal, this claim has very little meaning. The organic certification attests that specific requirements were verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled “USDA organic”. When it comes to crops, the USDA organic seal indicates that no irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were used. As for livestock, the USDA seal certifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors. For multi-ingredient foods the USDA organic seal validates that the product has 95% or more certified organic content.
The bottom line
If you are worried about your health and your family’s health, simply don’t buy any food you’ve seen advertised. The real healthy food is in the produce section. It is sitting quietly, without any packages to print health claims on, without research budgets and with no marketing muscle behind it. As long as you eat real food, and emphasize plants more than meat in your diet, your health will thrive.