A special guest post by Lori Zanteson, editor for Team CrossFit Academy‘s newsletter (and Whole9 Nutrition Partner).
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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Thank You Lori, this was very informative and I’m passing it on.
“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?)”
Yeah my Collard greens never give me anything either!! :)
Jan's Sushi Bar says
CSPI and the FDA? Really???
The thing that gets me here is the “100%” claim. “100% Irish Beef” is perceived as 100% beef when it is in fact 100% Irish. A quick look at the ingredients reveals anything as low as 80% beef.
Lori, that’s an excellent article, thank you!
“Crayons” juice… Wow, what a horrific gimmick. Every time I see something like this I understand better what the parents are dealing with in the grocery stores, when their little ones are clamoring for some “must have” product. With some of these propaganda campaigns, it’s challenging enough for me to stay out of their clutches, I’m so very glad I don’t have to take kids grocery shopping too!
Melissa @Whole9 says
Laura – sneaky, sneaky. If it’s only 80% beef, I truly don’t want to know what the other 20% is made from. Shudder.
Kellie – those drinks aren’t the worst of them, either! SO many that I’ve researched contain nothing more than pear juice concentrate in less than 2% amounts – the rest is water and sugar. Nasty.
Lori Z. says
Thanks for the kind words! What a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the Whole9 community.
So much about labeling is vague, misleading and definitely inconsistent. It’s blatant in the world of kids’ food where cartoons and neon colors are a pretty good clue an ingredient check is needed. But it can be confusing on any label that has more than a handful of ingredients. Yes, the FDA and CSPI are “on it,” but ultimately, we are in control. Whole9 says it best: eat real food!
Melissa… nothing overly sinister. Just bread, onions and herbs. Sometimes they have lactose in them too. I stopped buying them a long time ago. If we are having burgers I buy mince from the farmer/slaughterhouse/butcher (same guy does all 3) so I know exactly where it is coming from.
One of these years I will get some stock fencing up and I will grow my own cow :)
Karen Stromm says
This is the reason why I always carefully read labels and just buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Products in cartons and claim they’re natural always look suspicious to me.
Lori Z. says
Karen, I definitely agree. Even those that seem so wholesome and “clean” can be just as bad as those usual suspects.
Richard F says
Nothing you brought up is a false health claim, as you in fact stated it’s “unregulated”. There’s no regulation mandating that everything in a package labeled “organic” actually be organic, it’s only referring to an ingredient or two. Just like saying something is “low carb” is unregulated. Food makers can claim a foodstuff is a certain “something” especially if it’s an unregulated or untested claim currently because there are no published guidelines which have to be adhered to, “low carb” is currently the biggest issue right now as it can be put on practically anything but there’s no mandated definition of what “low” actually is. And the best part is there’s little to no recourse as no one is going to get fined for it, since there is no mandated or legal regulation. Nabisco can continue to make faux-organic Oreos because they’re not lying, the flour and sugar are organic, they didn’t claim anything else was and aren’t required to.
This is a regulatory problem that stems from the NLEA, hampered by the FDA. The FDA are a part of the problem, which most people know. They’re more likely to kowtow to food makers and litigators than they are to the people they’re meant to protect.