How Much Can You Trust That Food Label?
Fat-free. Organic. All-natural. Can these claims be trusted?
Fact: A food product with less than half a gram of fat per serving can still be described as "fat free" on the packaging. Same goes for "sugar free." Foods labeled as having "zero cholesterol" need only have less than two milligrams. Clearly, the folks labeling food these days missed the memo on the absolutist nature of words like "zero" and "free."
Now, these are very small amounts that we're bickering about. But the verbiage, in some cases, can be misleading. It all prompts the question: What else are we being misled about?
Let's talk about organic — perhaps the biggest buzzword in food today. Research shows that many shoppers view organic food labels as no more than a big con to get them to pay more for their groceries. But the organic label appears only on foods that meet a strict set of requirements. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration polices which foods get the label and which don't. Every claim of label abuse is investigated.
So what exactly is organic? The requirements to get an organic label stamped on your product are as numerous as they are stringent. Here's the gist: Organic farms and processors must preserve natural resources and biodiversity, support animal health and welfare, provide animals with outdoor access, only use approved materials, refrain from using genetically modified ingredients, receive annual onsite inspections, and feed organic livestock feed that is no less than 100% organic.
There are different levels of organic. Foods labeled "100% Organic" are made of only organic ingredients. The "Organic" label means that at least 95% of the food product's ingredients are organic. Anything labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients" has at least 70% certified organic ingredients.
It's important to note that there is no evidence that organic foods are more nutritious than foods that are not organic.
Foods billed as "natural" or "all-natural" have no universal standards. Not even those produced in the U.S. This has led to lawsuits for companies like Tyson, which once marketed "100% all natural chicken nuggets." There has even been a "natural" claim on bags of Cheetos. The "natural" label is one of the most contested food product claims. So when you see it, be wary. Some of those products very well may contain artificial flavors or chemical preservatives.
The "raw" label is not regulated by the FDA. While the FDA has the authority to investigate a false "raw" claim, there are no universal standards to police which foods get the label to begin with. Typically, raw foods are considered those that have not been pasteurized and have undergone very minimal or no heating and processing.
Foods that are "fresh" — think fruits and vegetables — are those that are unprocessed, unheated, and unfrozen.
Foods with this label were quickly frozen shortly after harvest and while still fresh. Frozen fruits and vegetables are among the most common foods with this label, sometimes seen as "frozen fresh." (See also: The 12 Best Frozen Food Values)
A food is fortified if it contains added nutrients that don't naturally exist in the product. Salt, for example, is fortified with iron to curb anemia. Milk is fortified with vitamin D, a nutrient that helps the body absorb calcium.
Enriched foods have contain added nutrients have been lost during food processing, but exist in them naturally. Wheat sheds its B vitamins when it's processed into flour, so enriched flour has these vitamins added back in.
Immune System Support
Food products that claim to boost your immune system typically contain an array of vitamins. But companies walk a fine line when advertising health benefits without proof. Exhibit A: The company that makes Airborne, an herbal supplement, settled a class-action lawsuit in 2008 over the wording "boost the immune system" on product's label. A judge ruled that the label qualified as false advertising because there wasn't ample evidence to support such a claim. The $23 million settlement money was refunded to consumers.
Foods labeled "gluten free" are those that contain fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten. The FDA allows manufacturers use the label if the food does not contain any of type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains. Bottled water and cherries can also be labeled "gluten-free" if they inherently don't have any gluten.
Sell By, Use By, Best By
"Sell By" marks the final date by which a store ought to have a food product on its shelves for purchase. This label caters more to store managers than customers, but it's a good to be aware of since the FDA does not prohibit the sale of expired foods as indicated by the label — though the agency will force the removal from shelves of foods that are dangerous. The "Use By" and "Best By" dates are interchangeable. Determined by the manufacturer, they are dates by which a product will retain its highest quality. But the food item won't necessarily go sour immediately after. In fact, it probably won't. Foods tend to remain nutritious beyond their shelf lives.
The FDA has guidelines for manufacturers to reference when determining a food's portion size based on the amount of that food that a person is likely to eat in one sitting. The metrics is based in grams. The guidelines, however, are outdated. If you think the serving size on the foods you eat seem small, you're right. The data the FDA bases its guidelines on is from the 1970s and 1980s, when Americans consumed less food than today.
So, should you trust the label? Perhaps the best answer is sometimes. Certainly not always. The only way of knowing which claims are well-regulated and enforced from those that are little more than hot air is to educate yourself. We hope this post serves as a great jumping off point.
Any other label terms we should be wary of? Please warn us in comments!
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