Misleading Food Labels and Their Villainous Henchmen

Photo by Mike Mozart. Misleading food labels.
Misleading Food Labels. Photo by Mike Mozart

The food industry uses all sorts of chemicals in the pursuit of cleanliness. Isn’t it a little ironic that their way of misleading consumers is, well, dirty? Words that mean one thing to the general public often mean something very different to food producers and the USDA. These differences have been deliberately exploited to get you to believe you are making a healthier or more ethical choice by buying a more expensive food product that was made no differently from the rest. Enter misleading food labels. Let’s uncover a few.

“Natural.” This means absolutely nothing. The word “natural” is unregulated by the FDA. So, theoretically, you could put a stick of plutonium in a Monsanto hotdog bun and label it “natural” without breaking any labeling laws (though some other laws might be broken). While there are no laws against labeling granola bars filled with maltodextrin and high-fructose corn syrup as “natural,” there have been some lawsuits to date.

“Free Range” and “Cage Free.” We used to have chickens. They wandered around our land, perched on our dog, and scared the bajeezus out of my dad one day when they landed on his head in the mudroom. To me, that’s what “free range” means. But not to the USDA. In fact, there’s only thing that’s required by the USDA to be “free range,” which is that “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” Chickens can be packed into a warehouse and treated abysmally as long as there’s a tiny door to a small muddy yard. Cage-free” is just as meaningless. [Survival Gardener]

“Made With…” Made with real fruit? How much? The USDA has no regulations about how much of an ingredient must be used for a product to be labeled “made with __.” So a teaspoon is more than enough to garner the “made with” label. Even if it is “made with” a healthy ingredient, that doesn’t mean it’s actually a good source of that food. Plus it could contain a whole list of unhealthy ingredients as well.

“Lightly Sweetened.” Again, the FDA has no regulations about what this means. A bag of sugar could legally be labeled “lightly sweetened.” Look at the ingredient label for sugar and ingredients like “cane juice,” or anything ending in an “ose” (like “fructose”).

“High in Fiber.” To be labeled “high in fiber,” the FDA says a food must contain 5 grams of fiber per serving. This does NOT mean that it’s healthy fiber, or that it even has any of the benefits of eating naturally fibrous whole foods.

“Organic.” A lot of amazing people have invested their life’s work in maintaining the integrity of this word. However, corruption is still present. Here are some key misconceptions about the word “organic”

  • Organic doesn’t mean no chemicals. “You might think  the USDA “organic” label is reserved for foods produced without any man-made chemicals. But under government rules, “organic” food may be grown or processed with the aid of scores of synthetic substances, as long as those chemicals have been deemed essential.” [Washington Post]
  • Organic doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. I see quite a few people buying organic cheese puffs with the idea that they’re making a healthy choice. Foods that are far-removed from their natural state are generally unhealthy, as are sugary foods and those with little nutrient density, regardless of whether they’re organic.
  • Organic also doesn’t always mean sustainable. Feeding animals with organic feed imported from China isn’t the most eco-friendly approach, but it’ll get you the organic label.

“High in Vitamin Whatever.” Many supermarket foods, particularly cereals, are “fortified” by adding synthesized vitamins. “Synthetic (man-made) vitamins and minerals are not readily absorbed by the body. Your body simply is not designed to utilize them. Many synthetic vitamins are actually treated as toxins and are eliminated by your body as quickly as possible.”  Indeed, they have even caused health problems in children.

“Fresh.” This one is a joke. If you’re shopping in a grocery store, the food is almost certainly not fresh. Especially if it comes in a package. Of course there aren’t any regulations on this term (nor should the USDA be expected to take the place of our own five senses, though it often is), but it certainly sounds nice.

So what can we do?

Of course, we don’t have to be at the mercy of misleading food labels. There are ways to find real food. Here are a few:

  • Grow it yourself.
  • Forage for it yourself.
  • Buy from local farmers.
  • Buy from small-scale producers and cooperatives that are transparent about their practices.
  • In the supermarket, buy whole foods that are certified organic, non-GMO or Fair Trade.

Nicholas Tippins

3 thoughts on “Misleading Food Labels and Their Villainous Henchmen

  1. Awesome list. Another interesting one is with chicken labels, “No Hormones Added.”

    Additive hormones are banned by the FDA and have been for the past 50 years. So no growth hormones are added to any chicken we eat in the US. They are illegal, expensive and unnecessary.

    1. Interesting… I suppose that’s along the lines of labeling orange juice as “fat free,” as if that differentiated it from the rest.

    2. No “x” added is a label I mistrust universally. It lacks sufficient clauses to actually mean anything. Added to what? What “x” pre-existed in the product? Not added following which point in the production process? For me, labels like that contain the subtext “Do not buy this product.”

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