The supermarket is not the place I choose to linger. The last thing I want to do, especially with kids in tow, is choke my way through the food label maze. This isn’t for lack of trying, and mommy guilt dutifully kicks in when I don’t glide down each and every package ingredient. The reality is that lack of time and energy make food decisions a challenge. The result? Reliance on faulty front of package health claims.
Unfortunately for us parents, these claims are rampant on products marketed to kids. While anyone would raise an eyebrow at a sugar-seeped cereal’s “Whole Grains!” stamp, not all claims are so transparent. It’s a serious enough issue that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has realized the need to take action against such deceptive claims. Every year, food manufacturers receive warning letters from the FDA to correct these claims. In March 2010, a shocking17 major food manufacturers, including several popular children’s food brands were targeted.
As consumers we’re so accustomed to the “Kid Tested” and “Heart Healthy” type claims that it’s easy to accept them as true. But these days manufacturers would have us believe kid’s cereals and fruit drinks can do everything from make us smarter to boost our immune systems to prevent disease. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) believes food labeling is such a confusing mess that it published a report outlining consumer friendly changes that need to be made including regulating front of package health claims and overhauling ingredient labels. Until we see change, look twice when you see natural, organic, and made from claims.
The Natural Truth
Perhaps the most deceptive health claim on packaging today is the “natural” or “all natural” claim. Visions of fresh from the farm healthy offerings reach out to parents who want to feed their families simple natural foods. And it sells.
The problem is the claim is completely unregulated and meaningless.
Sugar, salt, and various forms of fat are all natural, but they are not necessarily healthy. There are “natural” ice creams, potato chips, and cereals, but a “natural” claim doesn’t mean there are no artificial or unhealthful ingredients. The only truth in this advertising is found through close inspection of the ingredient label.
Use of the term “natural flavors” on the other hand, is regulated. To qualify, flavors must be made from “natural” forms, plant or animal, such as a spice, fruit, vegetable, bark, or leaf. But be aware that though it is derived from a natural source, the end result may be something that vaguely resembles its origins.
Natural meat and poultry is also defined and regulated by the USDA. To qualify as natural, meat must be minimally processed and it cannot contain artificial ingredients or added color. Though growth hormones are not permitted, low levels of antibiotics to promote growth are. Yet, there is no system in place to verify “natural” claims.
Easily confused with natural, organic is actually quite different. Unlike natural, organic is more strictly regulated by the USDA. Organic refers to the way a food is grown, handled, and processed, but has nothing to do with a food’s nutritional makeup (though some studies are revealing a connection between the two).
To bear the USDA Certified Organic label, it must be grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers and developed without genetic engineering. Likewise, organic meat must come from animals that don’t eat feed grown with chemical pesticides and fertilizers and they can’t be given either growth hormones or antibiotics. Be sure to look for the official seal, as opposed to fraudulent claims (which are out there).
Single ingredient foods like fruits and vegetables are labeled 100% organic and can carry the USDA Organic seal. Products with more than one ingredient must contain at least 95% organic ingredients to bear the seal. This seems straightforward, but the seal is voluntary… which means not all products claiming to be organic truly are. If a product contains at least 70% organic ingredients they can’t use the seal but may use “made with organic ingredients” and list the word organic beside the ingredient on the label.
As with any label, look at all the ingredients. The presence and number of undesirable ingredients may trump the value of those that are organic.
“Made With” Little Honesty
“Made with” and “made from” claims warrant a closer look. “Made with real fruit” is a common claim in children’s food and drinks that is quite deceptive. Many “fruit” drinks and snacks are not even made from the very fruit shown on their labels, and are often high in sugar, artificial colors and flavors. This is especially true in products for very young children. The recent FDA crackdown on misleading claims targeted several large, go-to brands for misleading juice content and unauthorized nutrient claims.
One shifty front of package shows a grouping of several fruits on the front of the package and a loud claim that their product contains no high-fructose corn syrup… yet a glance at the label reveals less than 2% juice and none of the other fruits pictured. The first ingredients listed, however, are water and cane sugar.
It is common for fruit snacks not to include any real fruit except pear concentrate, which is easily disguised as other fruits with the addition of natural and artificial ingredients.
Time for change
Disappointing? Definitely. But a closer look will spot the deception almost every time. With the continued efforts of CSPI and the FDA, false health claims will hopefully diminish and eventually disappear so food labels will be a breeze to scan, even with kids in tow.
So read your labels and be an educated consumer. Remember, if a product is shouting it’s health claims, it’s probably not that healthy. (After all, when was the last time you saw a green “Smart Choice” check and a free movie ticket giveaway on your bag of spinach?)
Lori Zanteson is a writer, editor, and writing instructor. Specializing in food, nutrition and health issues, her work appears locally and nationally in a diverse selection of publications, both print and online, including magazines, journals, and newsletters. Striving for optimal health and wellness through food and healthy living keep her motivated to empower others through writing.
Visit http://www.lorizanteson.com/ for more information.
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