Today’s consumers are health conscious and many of them are concerned about misleading food labels. More people are taking the time to read food labels to compare foods and decide which product they should buy. Our food manufacturers know this and they’ve been known to get very creative when describing their products. Food producers use labels as a marketing tool and many products have misleading labels. This is especially true these days with the movement towards fresh, local, natural and organic food labels.
As food manufacturers come up with new buzzwords that are meant to boost sales, consumers are often duped into buying packaged foods that may not be as healthy as hoped for. Consumers expect the words on packages to have some truth to them as they look to make healthier choices. People also assume that the government is keeping an eye on manufacturers to keep them honest, but the reality is that government agencies have been letting them down.
Servings Size On Food Labels
Most people really have no idea how many calories they consume in a given day and it’s easy for them to underestimate the amount of fat, salt and sugar they’re eating even if they do check food labels. One study in 2012 concluded that the majority of consumers think the amount listed as a serving is what’s in the entire container. (1)
Even when they do understand that the ingredients list is not for the entire container, they assume the description relates to a regular size serving and this is rarely the case. Many serving sizes speak in terms of 50 or 100 grams and the information is not as useful as it could or should be since most consumers don’t weigh their food. Serving size is often used as a tool to intentionally create misleading food labels.
Health Claims On Food Labels
Most of us assume that the government is looking out for our best interests and that food manufacturers are subjected to regular and ongoing inspections. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
Whether in Canada or the US, the government provides industry guidelines and food manufacturers self-regulate when it comes to compliance. It’s far from an ideal situation and given the importance of the food supply to the health and wellness of the population it’s hard to understand how the situation has been allowed to deteriorate to the extent we see today.
In Canada and the US it’s left up to each individual company to test their foods and compile their own nutrition labels. In addition, the FDA considers a margin of error of up to 20% to be acceptable on all values for packaged foods.
Canada has a similar 20 percent allowance for error and between 2006 and 2010 when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency sampled over 1000 foods and beverages they found 17 percent of the samples did not meet the 20 percent allowance for error. (2)
Despite the poor rate of compliance, the conservative government in Canada gave the food industry complete free reign in 2012 when they announced that Canada would no longer monitor or inspect any nutrition claims on food labels. The government does not even conduct occasional checks to see how many misleading food labels are on the shelves. What could possibly go wrong?
Here’s the new mechanism as it was explained in the budget:
“The government will change how the Canadian Food Inspection Agency monitors and enforces non-health and non-safety food labelling regulations. The CFIA will introduce a web-based label verification tool that encourages consumers to bring validated concerns directly to companies and associations for resolution”
Notice the wording says this a change in how the government monitors and enforces.
Food Labelling Laws
Let’s recap what we know so far. Food manufacturers and processors are expected to test their foods and produce their own nutrition labels. A margin of error of up to 20 percent is considered perfectly normal and there is no government agency or program that inspects for compliance even on an occasional basis.
I’m sure by now some of you are asking why should we even bother reading what’s on the labels. How accurate will they be in this environment? Well, as bad as this is, it’s all we’ve got to go on. And in some ways, it makes it even more important to understand the buzzwords so you don’t get lulled into a sense of false security by words like natural or made with organic ingredients. You need to be aware that some food manufacturers create misleading food labels to help sell products.
How absurd can things get – doing nothing is the new standard of enforcement!
What It Means When It’s On A Food Label
Free: usually seen as sugar free, calorie free or fat free etc.
What it means: This is intended to mean that the product either contains none of that particular ingredient or such a small amount it’s insignificant.
Calorie-free for example means less than 5 calories per serving. Sugar-free and fat-free both mean less than 0.5 grams per serving.
Reduced/Light/Lite/Lower: In Canada, these foods will typically contain 25 percent less of the specified item than the original or similar foods of the same quality. In the US there is no percentage stated; it means the food is reduced/light/lite/lower an equivalent amount as the top three brands that are labelled the same way. (3)
Made With Organic
Made with organic means the product contains at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients. The remaining ingredients should be produced without the use of prohibited practices like genetic engineering, but they do permit substances that would not be allowed in 100% organic products. Made with organic products do not bear the USDA organic seal but must still identify the USDA-accredited certifier. (4)
What Does Natural Mean
Sixty percent of consumers look for the word natural on products and 70 percent of them think it means there are no artificial ingredients. People also believe it means there were no GMOs or artificial ingredients in feed and that the animals went out doors. But natural is not a strictly regulated term and is one of the most misleading food labels. Meat labeled all-natural can come from animals raised in confinement and fed GMO feed and antibiotics.
This next paragraph comes from the FDA website:
“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 the 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 word natural can be used as long as the food has not been submitted to processes that have significantly altered the original physical, chemical or biological state of the food.
However, here are a few processes that are considered to make only a minor change to foods and are considered acceptable for foods being labelled natural:
- Drying or dehydration
- Smoking (natural not chemical)
- Treatment with toxic gases (with no chemical change?)
When Are Disclosure Statements Required on Food:
In the US, the rules for disclosure statements are as follows: (5)
When is a disclosure statement required?
It is a requirement when a nutrient content claim (NCC) is made and the food contains one or more of the following nutrients in excess of the levels listed below per Reference Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC), per labeled serving, or, for foods with small serving sizes like 50 grams:
- Total Fat 13.0 grams
- Saturated Fat 4.0 grams
- Cholesterol 60 milligrams
- Sodium 480 milligrams
The italics are mine. It’s hard to believe that disclosure is required only if the amount is in excess of what’s listed above. Let’s do a little math; in the case of fat content, 13 g / 50 g = 26 percent. So a disclosure statement is NOT REQUIRED if there is 25 percent or less fat content.
According to the American Heart Association you should never consume more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily (1 teaspoon). 480/2300 = 20 percent of one teaspoon. If there’s less than 1/5 of a teaspoon of salt in a 50g serving, you don’t have to mention it. A 100g serving (less than 4 oz) is small for many things and could contain 40 percent of your daily allowance of sodium, yet it doesn’t have to be on the label!
When are disclosure statements required on meal-type products?
A meal product must be labeled with a disclosure statement if it contains more per serving size than:
- 26 g of fat
- 8 g of saturated fat
- 120 mg of cholesterol
- 960 mg of sodium
A main dish product must be labeled with a disclosure statement if it contains more per serving size than:
- 19.5 g of fat
- 6.0 g of saturated fat
- 90 mg of cholesterol
- 720 mg of sodium
I won’t go through the math again because it varies based on what the serving size, but I’m sure you get the idea by now.
Good Source and High
Don’t you think it’s odd that a food manufacturer can make a claim that something is a good source of something anytime a food contains 10-19 percent of the RDI or DRV, and a claim that something contains a high amount can be made when a food contains at least 20% of the DV.
Yet according to the same food guidelines, less than 20 percent content of fat or sodium is not considered significant!
Misleading Food Labels
Companies can also make general health claims like healthy, smart and nutritious. According to regulations, these claims should not be misleading. Yet a claim that a product is nutritious can be made as long as ONE NUTRIENT from the Nutrition Facts Table is in the product. Could this possibly encourage misleading food labels?
Is there a way for consumers to check if a particular processed food product is really as natural as they’d like?
Consumers are expected to do their own research and call the manufacturer to ask about a product. If you get a vague response like the information is proprietary or the company can’t reveal the formula, you should then be a little suspicious about how natural the product is. After all, what could be so mysterious about a product if it is truly natural!
Don’t expect that any product is good for you just because you see the word natural in large print on the package. Many products that are labelled natural are full of sugar and that means you’l getting lots of empty calories and little in the way of nutrients.
A lot of people don’t want to hear this, but there’s a simple solution to the problem – avoid packaged foods as much as possible. If you cook with tomatoes rather than canned tomatoes, you don’t have to worry about what’s going to end up on your plate.
Serving Size And Rounding Error
Serving size is where it gets tricky for a lot of people. You need to do the math to figure out how much you’re going to use or consume. If the serving size is a tablespoon and you intend to use on cup in a recipe, you need to adjust for the fact that there are 16 tablespoons in one cup.
Then there’s the issue of rounding error. When a label that says that 1 tablespoon has one gram of carbs, there could be anything from .51 grams to 1.49 grams because that represents the allowable error due to rounding. The error could end up being a significant amount if you happen to be using several servings at one time.
Parting Thoughts On Misleading Food Labels
No one wants to have to count the calories in every product they buy, but you do need make sure that you’re not getting a lot of empty calories in a small serving because it can add up very quickly.
With two thirds of the population tipping the scales on the high side, it’s important to look at serving size and make sure you make an adjustment for how many servings you will have. The serving size on the side of food packaging is usually for a much smaller serving than what most of us have at one time.
You also need to make sure you take a look at where the calories are coming from. Many Americans consume more calories than they need and these extra calories can usually be traced back to the added sugars in packaged foods.
Lastly, we all need to get off the convenience food bandwagon and go back to cooking more meals at home. If you cook in larger batches you will always have some top quality, ready to eat convenience food that you made yourself. You’ll save money and your health will benefit as well.
What do you think? Is our food supply likely to get better from this type of policy or is it madness and bad idea? Is it a good idea to leave it up to food producers to self-monitor for misleading food labels?