As you meander through the grocery aisles, labels scream out: Fat-Free! 100% Natural! Grass-Fed! But, beware; you can’t always judge a food by its label. In response to consumers’ demands, many companies have chosen to rebrand their products rather than to make them healthier, more humane and more eco-friendly. This was the case in 2009 when eight large food manufacturers launched the Smart Choices program to “promote informed food choices and help consumers construct healthier diets.” Products labeled with the Smart Choices logo included Froot Loops, Cocoa Puffs, Lucky Charms, Sun Chips, Baked Lays potato chips, Fudgsicles, Hellmann’s mayonnaise and other junky foods. Under tremendous pressure, the corporations pulled the $1.47 million program, but learned a valuable lesson — take a subtler approach to deceptive labeling.
Today’s food labels artfully sugarcoat — or sugar-free coat — to make the product more appealing. After all, Betty Crocker’s “Naturally-Flavored Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups” sounds healthy and delicious and certainly sells better than would a label that accurately described the content: “Mostly Corn Syrup, Processed Sugar and Partially Hydrogenated Oil with Lots of Chemicals and No Actual Strawberries Rollups.”
Slapping a metal rock label on a Lawrence Welk album doesn’t change its tunes. The music is still easy listening no matter what the label claims. And no matter how you slice it, mayonnaise will never be a smart choice and Cocoa Puffs will never be part of a healthier diet. So how can you distinguish between an accurate label and one that is pure baloney? First, read the ingredients and the nutrition panel no matter what the package says. Second, learn the source of the label. Rely only upon logos and terms backed by clear, strict standards and certified by reputable organizations. Consumer Reports maintains a helpful interactive Eco-Labels database, where you can research common food labeling terms and logos.
Here is the inside scoop on labels you likely regularly encounter:
Only products that apply stringent FDA or USDA approved organic methods can use the term organic or the USDA organic logo. Organic labeling rules cover fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, dairy and multi-ingredient processed products. Looking for the organic label is also a good way to avoid GMOs, since genetic engineering disqualifies products from organic certification.
Food corporations are notoriously tightlipped about genetic modification. They recognize that corn spliced with bacteria genes might not sell well — if we knew that is, but nothing in the law makes them tell us. Fortunately, the Non-GMO Project has our backs. The non-profit organization certifies which products are free from genetically modified ingredients.
Natural is a useless term with no official definition. As a clue to how lax this standard is, the packaging for Yummy’s dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets proclaims, “100% all natural.” Natural junk foods may contain GMO ingredients, high fructose corn syrup and other heavily processed, unhealthy stuff.
There is nothing natural about the way natural flavors are made. Scientists create natural flavors in a lab, just as they would artificial flavors. The natural flavor may not even be made from the ingredient you think you taste. For example, flavor technicians can transform beaver butt secretions into strawberry and vanilla flavors. Because the anal secretion is naturally derived, food manufacturers are allowed to call it natural flavors.
Free-range does not mean the chicken was clucking around happily on a picturesque farm. To stamp the label on poultry, the bird need only be given access to the open air for an unspecified amount of time, even as little as a couple of minutes, and use of this label on eggs is completely unregulated.
Likewise, a grass-fed cow was not necessarily roaming free on bucolic pastures. After being fed grass for a few months, a grass-fed cow is often moved to a crowded feedlot to eat mostly grain and corn.
Low fat and fat-free
The FDA applies specific definitions to fat-free and low fat. But, some consumers translate these terms into no weight gain, which is not necessarily true. The terms refer to the nutrient fat, but the product may still contain excessive sugar and calories that can be converted into body fat.
Since August 2014, companies may claim their products are gluten free only if the food is inherently gluten-free, has been processed to remove gluten or contains the minimum measurable amount of gluten. The FDA deserves a standing ovation for this labeling rule that honestly informs consumers about the product. Hopefully, the FDA’s call to action is not a one-hit wonder.