Food Labeling and Hogwash

By Stefanie Sacks, MS, CNS, CDN

While all food products have Nutrition Facts Labels and ingredient lists, it’s the flashy food label claims that often sway you to reach for a product. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the government body that is charged with ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply, there are three categories of claims that are defined and regulated by the FDA: health claims, nutrient content claims, and structure-function claims.

Health claims require premarket approval, but the latter two do not, leaving nutrient content claims and structure-function claims up to food manufacturers. Enter the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a federal agency formed in 1914 to protect consumers against fraud, deception, and unfair business practices.

Health Claims Health claims describe a relationship between a food (including a component of the food, and even a dietary supplement ingredient) and its reduced risk of a disease or health-related condition. Any company intending to put health claims on its food products must have premarket authorization by the FDA. There are two types of health claims: Authorized Health Claims, such as, "Adequate calcium throughout life may reduce the risk of osteoporosis,” meet a certain criteria based on extensive scientific research. Qualified Health Claims, such as, “Development of heart disease depends upon many factors, but its risk may be reduced by diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol and healthy lifestyles,” are based on emerging evidence that a food (or component of a food) reduces the risk of disease or a health-related condition.

Nutrient Content Claims Nutrient content claims characterize the level of a specific nutrient in a food product or they compare nutrient levels between products. Examples include: free, high, low, more, reduced, light.

Structure-Function Claims Structure-function claims highlight the role a nutrient or other ingredient in a product plays in the normal structure or function of the body. “Calcium builds strong bones,” is an example. These claims can also describe the way a nutrient or other ingredient maintains structure or function as in, “Fiber promotes bowel regularity.” In addition, they can refer to disease prevention from consumption of a specific nutrient, such as, the relationship between Vitamin C and scurvy. However, the latter can only be used if there is widespread disease in the United States.

According to the FDA, “Food manufacturers are responsible for developing labels (including nutrition information) that meet legal food labeling requirements. All labeling of FDA-regulated food products must be truthful and not misleading. Proper labeling, including nutrition labeling and labeling for the major food allergens, is required for most prepared foods.”

Still, there have been countless food companies charged with mislabeling products. Here are a few examples:

  • A baby food company claimed its formula was organic when it was not.

  • A snack bar company claimed a product was “healthy” when it had more than the daily recommended percent of calories from saturated fat.

  • A beverage company claimed its sports drink was nutrient-enhanced, but it was actually sugar water.

The food industry has the advantage of labeling anything they want as natural and duping you into believing that you are doing the right thing for your health.

Label Lingo In short, there are nearly 40 terms that food manufacturers use on their packaging to make an impression. It is safe to say that most of them are hogwash, unless they come with third-party certification or verification. I dig deeply into this in Chapter 11 of What The Fork Are You Eating, and even examine specific food products this language is found on, if it’s actually verified, and how to navigate the marketing chaos. Below is a list of proclamations you should not just take at face value. For an abbreviated version of how to best navigate food labels and shop smarter, check out 5 Ways to Choose Your Food.

  1. Angus/Certified Angus

  2. Biodynamic

  3. Cage-Free

  4. Certified Naturally Grown

  5. COOL (Country of Origin Labeling)

  6. Fair Trade

  7. Food Alliance

  8. Gluten-Free

  9. GMO-Free

  10. Grassfed

  11. Heirloom

  12. Heritage

  13. Humane/High Welfare

  14. Animal Welfare Approved

  15. Certified Humane

  16. Non-Irradiated

  17. Kosher

  18. Locally Grown

  19. Natural

  20. Naturally Raised

  21. No Additives

  22. No Animal By-Products

  23. No Antibiotics

  24. No Hormones Added/Administered

  25. No Nitrates/Nitrites

  26. No Spray/Pesticide-Free

  27. Omega-3 Enriched

  28. Organic (USDA Certified)

  29. Pastured/Pasture Raised

  30. Rainforest Alliance Certified

  31. Raw

  32. rGBH Free

  33. Sulfite Free

  34. Sustainable 35 Vegetarian Fed

  35. Whole Grain

Hasta La Vista, Hogwash If you still feel confused or overwhelmed, follow these three basic rules for consumption clarity:

  • Generally speaking, do not give much credence to any claims on processed foods, as most are likely overhyped.

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it is. A product boasting lots of claims is just way too phony.

  • Real food, including products made with five to seven ingredients at most (meaning it is likely not too processed), doesn’t need to boast health or make colorful claims because its whole food properties make it the inherent best bet.

**A Note About “Natural” ** This very funny–and spot on–video from The Natural Effect is more than nine years old, but still perfectly relevant today, which is super frustrating and why we need to keep exposing false labeling.

The FDA has this to say about “natural,” a term that is only loosely defined: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer a product of the earth. That said, the FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” The bad news is that the FDA is nowhere near revamping their definition of natural. The term, in its current form, gives the food industry the advantage of labeling anything they want as natural and duping you into believing that you are making a smart selection for your health. Folks, let’s be clear: There is nothing natural about a bag of chips with a long list of ingredients including flavors (their source being natural rather than synthetic) and genetically modified favorites such as corn, soy, and cottonseed oil.

Don’t let unregulated terms or an image of a warm and fuzzy farm on a package sway you. “Natural” means nothing and its overuse and misuse has adulterated what it once represented years ago—food that was truly pure (consisting of few ingredients; void of anything invented in a lab; and GMO-free).

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