What do your food labels really mean? 'Free-range,' 'natural,' 'non-toxic,' and other myths

It's easy to get sucked into buying a product based on what its label says -- after all, that's what the label's designed to do. And some of those label claims are regulated by the U.S. or monitored by the industry, and they actually mean something.

Others, though, have almost no meaning -- they're simply a marketplace come-on, and empty claims like "Made with Natural Goodness," "Kid Approved" and "Doctor Recommended" have become as common as those with legal definitions. Today, even regulated terms like "Healthy" and "Contains Antioxidants" have become muddied.
Consumers are exposed to numerous misleading labels every day, says Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, whose recent report on labeling demonstrates the need for changes in U.S. food labeling policies. Some rules are quite odd, like the fact that two agencies regulate what's in soup or pizza, depending on whether they contain meat.

One labeling trend Silverglade hates is the claim that a product can strengthen your immune system. "All of these claims imply that eating the product will help ward off diseases -- and all of them are false," he says. "Eating vegetables and drinking cranberry juice are healthy, but they are no more likely to ward off disease than any other healthy food."

Another badly abused phrase: "made with whole grains." You see that more often, too, since the U.S. recommended consuming whole grains. "People have been encouraged to eat grains rich in whole wheat, and some companies have given lip service to that public health advice by adding small doses of whole grains to their product," Silverglade says. He cites Thomas's Hearty Grains English muffins, which contain just a token amount of whole wheat flour. Enriched wheat flour is the first ingredient. "That certainly sounds healthy," Silverglade says. "But that's actually just ordinary wheat flour." Midway down the ingredient list -- below water -- is whole wheat flour.

The CSPI is also concerned about fruit claims for products that contain virtually no fruit. Toddler snack Gerber Graduates Juice Treats Fruit Medley lists a collection of fruits on the package -- but actually has less than 2% raspberry juice, and none of the others. The main ingredients: corn syrup and sugar. Betty Crocker Strawberry Fruit Gushers -- "Made with real fruit" -- is not made with strawberries, and contains just a small amount of pear concentrate: the "real fruit" in question.

The Food and Drug Administration, which polices labeling, hasn't aggressively pursued such issues, which SIlverglade says lets corporate lawyers figure out misleading phrases guaranteed to keep their clients out of legal trouble.

The real standards come from the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the fake ones come from anywhere and everywhere. Few consumers could reasonably memorize and sort through the real and the meaningless. That's why we present a Consumer Ally primer on label claims true and false. (If you don't see a term below that you've noticed, please email ConsumerAlly@WalletPop.com .)

Organic. Any multi-ingredient product bearing the USDA Organic seal must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. But the federal certification process is voluntary -- and not every product that claims to be organic undergoes such scrutiny.

Made with organic ingredients. At least 70% of the ingredients must be organic. The product cannot carry the USDA Organic seal.

Non- or -free. Must have less than the following per serving: fat (0.5 gram), sugar (0.5 gram), cholesterol (2mg), or sodium (5mg).

Low-. Generally, the product must have less than the following per serving: fat (3 grams), cholesterol (20 mg), or sodium (140 mg).

Reduced. Generally, the product must have at least 25% less of the given component than is typically found in that type of food.

Light. If at least half of the product's calories come from fat, fat must be reduced by at least 50% per serving. If less than half of the calories are from fat, fat must be reduced at least 50%, or calories reduced at least 33%, per serving.

Reduced, Added, Extra, Plus, Fortified, Enriched. These claims can be made relative to a similar representative product.

High, Rich In, Excellent Source Of. All designate products with at least 20% of the recommended daily amount per serving.

Good Source, Contains, Provides. The product must have more than 10% but less than 20% of the recommended daily amount per serving.

More, Fortified, Enriched, Added, Extra, Plus. For vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber with at least 10% of the recommended amount per serving.

Lean. Generally, less than 10 grams of fat.

Extra lean. Less than 5 grams of fat.

Certified Humane. A label for products made by non-profit organizations dedicated to humane treatment of animals. To use the label, animals must have been given no growth hormones or antibiotics, or lived in cages, crates, or stalls; and must have had "access to sufficient, clean, and nutritious feed and water."

Naturally raised.
A recent USDA standard for animals raised withhout growth hormones or anitbiotics.

Natural. A term regulated only for meats and poultry -- containing no artificial flavors, colors, or chemical preservatives -- and otherwise meaningless.

Some label terms, although truthful, have little or no real meaning, no standards for definition -- and a high potential to confuse consumers:
  • Contains antioxidants
  • Doctor-recommended
  • Free-range (can mean anything from an animal that roams freely to one that is let out of its cage from time to time)
  • Green
  • Immunity formula
  • Kid-approved
  • Made with whole grains
  • May lower cholesterol
  • Natural (for non-meat or -poultry products)
  • Natural goodness
  • No trans fat
  • Non-toxic
  • Parent-tested
  • Strengthens your immune system

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whatsnickeating

I think we should all have a little cheat sheet guide to carry with us when we shop. There are so many labels that are actually making it harder to buy food. I've started to make a list here which I will soon publish as a handy downloadable PDF: http://whatsnickeating.com/2013/06/05/reading-through-food-labels/

June 10 2013 at 6:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
whatsnickeating

I think we should all have a little cheat sheet guide to carry with us when we shop. There are so many labels that are actually making it harder to buy food. I've started to make a list here which I will soon publish as a handy downloadable PDF: http://whatsnickeating.com/2013/06/05/reading-through-food-labels/

June 10 2013 at 6:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply