11 Food Label Lies

Don’t spend extra money buying into marketing hype and misinformation. Look for food claims and labels you can trust.

November 9, 2011
Truth in Labeling?
When you spend your hard-earned money on a food claiming to be more ethical or healthier than its competitors, you feel duped when you find out that claim is essentially meaningless. Yet, it happens a lot, thanks to the lack of regulations around feel-good claims like "natural" and "free-range." And those are just two of the biggest offenders. These 11 meaningless claims are all too common on food packages, so consider yourself forewarned--don't buy foods with these words on the box!

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No added growth hormones

The lie: Usually, you'll see this claim in ads for chicken, turkey, or even pork, along with milk and beef labels. Why is it misleading? The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't allow farmers to feed hormones to poultry or pork. In fact, if you read the fine print, any poultry or pork product that is advertised as "hormone free" must legally be accompanied by the disclaimer "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones." Producers of those meats use antibiotics instead, which speed growth in the same way as hormones; the USDA calls this "increasing feed efficiency." Even when you see this label on beef or dairy products--products where hormones are legally allowed--it hasn't been verified by a third party, so you're really taking the food marketer's word for it.

To get the real thing: Buy certified organic meat and dairy, which are free of both added growth hormones and antibiotics, and organic poultry products. Or, buy from small farmers whom you can ask about how they raise and medicate their animals.

Read more: Milk from Hormoned-Up Cows IS Different, Court Agrees


The lie: The implications of this label can make anyone feel good about their farm-fresh, straight-from-the-dirt...can of powdered lemonade. Unfortunately, there isn't any official definition of "natural," except when it comes to meat. The USDA has defined it as any product "containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product)." Their definition doesn't, however, make any statements about how animals were raise or whether the animals were fed hormones or antibiotics. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates fruits, vegetables, and most processed foods, doesn't have any official definition for the term. Essentially, a product can be as "natural" as the manufacturer would like you to believe and may contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and artificial sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup.

To get the real thing: Again, buying organic is your best protection. Alternatively, you can simply buy more fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts; the fewer ingredients involved, the less you have to worry about any of them being artificial.

Read more: Will "Natural" Kill "Organic"?

The lie: See this label, and bucolic scenes of grassy fields with healthy, happy cows probably come to mind. Think again. "Grass-fed" is a term that's sort-of regulated by the USDA, who has defined it to mean that an animal ate 100 percent grass and no corn or soy and had continuous access to pasture throughout its life. But the USDA allows anyone to use that terminology, provided a meat producer submits documentation saying that's what he or she is doing; no farm inspections are required to meet the definition. Furthermore, before this rule went into place in 2006, anyone could use the term "grass-fed" on food products, and those people were grandfathered in under the new rule, whether they meet the requirements or not. A final kicker? The rule applies only to cattle and other ruminant animals, but you'll often see it on packages for pork or chicken--animals that can't survive on a grass-only diet.

To get the real thing: If you see the words "U.S. Grass-fed" accompanied by a "USDA Process Verified" shield, you're in the clear. USDA verification requires actual farm visits, and it means that someone other than a farmer has witnessed that animals are eating grass. Or look for the American Grassfed Association certification, which has even stricter standards on "grass-fed" than the USDA. A third option: Buy your meat at the farmer's market, where the farmer who raised the meat can give you a detailed rundown of what his or her animals eat every day and who will allow you to visit the farm yourself.

Read more: Guide to Buying Grass-Fed Beef

The lie: Like "no added hormones," "antibiotic free" is a meaningless term, and it's actually illegal to use it on packages, according to the USDA. Manufacturers often skirt the issue by using phrases like "raised without antibiotics" or "no antibiotics administered." Furthermore, some meat producers use those phrases while dousing animals with anti-microbials, drugs that work identically to antibiotics but are defined differently by the FDA. And from an animal welfare perspective, "antibiotic free" isn't always a good thing. Operators of big concentrated animal feeding operations may overuse antibiotics to fatten up chickens and hogs faster, but small farmers save antibiotics for when animals get sick, as they should be used.

To get the real thing: Under organic regulations, any animal treated with antibiotics must be removed from organic production (it can still be sold as a conventionally raised product, though), and purchasing organic meat and dairy is the only way to truly avoid them. Or, find a local farmer who uses antibiotics on his or her herd responsibly.

Read more: How to Protect Yourself from 7 Food-System Threats

Nutrition Facts
The lie: The FDA allows food manufacturers to use averages for the calorie counts, salt content and fat grams (and any other information on the Nutrition Facts panel) of their foods, and food manufacturers are allowed to be off by as much as 20 percent. So that 500-calorie frozen dinner you're eating could have as many as 600 calories. If every meal you ate had 100 extra calories, you'd gain an additional 30 pounds this year. Another sticky label? Trans fats. The FDA allows manufacturers to put "0" if the amount of trans fats per serving is below .5 grams. "That's a quarter of a day's worth," says Jayne Hurley, RD, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who notes that 2 grams is what health experts suggest should be your daily limit.

To get the real thing: Avoid packaged foods. The foods without "Nutrition Facts" labels--fruits and vegetables--are the healthiest foods. When you do buy them, read ingredient labels, not nutrition labels, to avoid trans fats. And avoid any product with partially hydrogenated oils listed. "If there's no partially hydrogenated oil, the trans-fat content really is zero," Hurley says.

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The lie: You're most likely to see this label on poultry products, such as eggs or packages of chicken. And in both cases, it's misleading. For eggs, the implication is that the chickens that laid them aren't kept in the tiny battery cages used widely in the factory-farmed egg business. In most "cage-free" operations, however, the animals still live inside a windowless henhouse, not outside where they belong. There's also no independent third party that certifies egg producers as cage free, so you really have to take producers at their word. For chicken meat, "cage-free" labels are simply deceptive. Broiler chickens--birds raised for meat--are rarely kept in cages. That's standard industry practice because caged hens suffer problems that can make meat less appealing to consumers.

To get the real thing: Find a local chicken grower who raises small flocks. Not only can you make sure to ask him or her about whether their chickens see the light of day, but you'll also get safer meat: Salmonella contamination of chicken meat and eggs has been directly linked to the size of a chicken flock.

Read More: The Truth about Your Eggs
The lie: If one grain is good, "multi" grains must be better, right? Yes, except when all those multigrains are just multiple versions of unhealthy refined grains. And that could be what you're getting when you reach for that loaf of multigrain bread. The FDA has never explicitly stated that anything labeled "multi-grain" must contain the whole version of all grains that are used, and food marketers like to use the claim on wheat products because it makes their products seem healthier than they are.

To get the real thing: "Multi-grain" isn't always bad; some companies do in fact use whole grains in multigrain breads, cereals and other baked goods. It just means you have to read the ingredients list and make sure the word "whole" precedes ever grain listed. Or look for the "100% whole grain" claim. That is regulated by the FDA and would mean that all grains used in the product are whole.

Read More: The Grain Guide: Easy Recipes for the Healthiest Whole Grains
Use-By, Sell-By, or Best-By Dates
The lie: Ninety percent of Americans say in surveys that, at least once, they've thrown out food because it was past its use-by or sell-by date. Here's why that's a waste of your money and your food: The dates, which are completely arbitrary, relate to a food's freshness, not whether it will make you sick, and were first used back in the '70s as a way to tell an increasingly urban public how fresh-from-the-farm their food was. Despite the fact that some states require certain foods to bear them, these ubiquitous dates aren't even set by law. They're set entirely at the discretion of the food companies making your food and are based on when they think the quality of their food will have reached its peak, not on any scientific standards for freshness or evidence of food decay.

To get the real thing: Learn to pay attention to your foods' colors, odors, and textures. Those are the three most reliable indicators that a food has past its real "best by" date, not some meaningless date stamped on a package. Foods with a high water content tend to spoil most quickly and will develop strong odors, slimy textures, and changes in color due to microbial growth and other reactions.

Read More: The 2 Most Misleading Words on a Food Label
Front-of-Package Labeling Systems
The lie: The 20, mostly industry-created, front-of-package labeling systems that have been launched in the past few years aren't trying to make finding healthy food easy for you, says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, author of Eat Drink Vote. They're a tool for selling, not buying, she says, and often highlight good nutrients (levels of fiber, vitamins, and minerals) while ignoring the bad stuff you should be concerned about (fat, sodium, and added sugar). Two years ago, the FDA tried to rein in all these systems and asked an independent (nonindustry) advisory board to come up with a better one. That board recommended that packages highlight added sugar, fat, salt, and calories and accompany those with a star system to rate products based on healthfulness. Before those recommendations could be adopted, however, the food industry came up with yet another labeling system: "Facts Up Front," a label that lists total sugar, calories, saturated fat, and sodium (without any rating system that puts these numbers in perspective), along with "nutrients to encourage," such as fiber and vitamins--whose focus, say scholars at the Harvard School of Public Health, simply gives companies an incentive to fortify unhealthy foods to make them seem healthier than they really are.

To get the real thing: Since Nutrition Facts panels can be unreliable measures of things you should be concerned about--fat, added sugar, calories and salt--your best bet is to avoid packaged foods altogether and opt for whole foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and unprocessed meats.

Read More: Smart Choice? What Does That Mean?
The lie: More of a food packaging claim than a food marketing claim, "BPA Free" is appearing on a growing number of plastic food containers, food service items, and canned food packaging (nearly all canned foods contain a plastic lining made from BPA), hoping to lull shoppers into a sense of security that the food packaging isn't leaching a toxic chemical linked to reproductive problems, heart disease, and some types of cancer into their food. Those items may not be leaching BPA--but they could be leaching some other damaging chemical. A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that all plastics leached chemicals that interfere with your reproductive system, some even more potent than BPA.

To get the real thing: Opt for products packaged in glass or aseptic cartons (like those used for boxed soups and soy milk), and bring your own glass or stainless steel to-go containers with you when you eat out. There is one exception to the BPA-Free claim you can trust: Eden Foods. That company packages its beans, rice and chilies in BPA-free cans that are lined with a plant-based (plastic-free) resin, and is currently the only company in the US that does so.

Read more: All Plastics Are Bad for Your Body, New Study Finds
The lie: Organic foods are soaring in popularity, even in spite of a bad economy, a recent survey found. One major reason for this trend is the increasing evidence on what pesticides such as Roundup and atrazine, the two most widely used pesticides in agriculture, are doing to our bodies: interfering with our hormones, increasing the risk of diseases such as Parkinson's and cancer, and causing birth defects and attention-deficit disorder in children. So naturally, big food producers want a cut of the profits--but they don't want to pay for the added cost of organic certification. So they try to fool shoppers into thinking that "pesticide-free" or "free from pesticide residues" is just as good as organic. Some of those foods even feature certifications from independent third parties attesting to the fact that the produce has been tested and found to be "free of pesticide residues." But the Consumers Union doesn't agree. According to their "Greener Choices" Ecolabel guide, many of the pesticide-free rating and certification programs out there use the same detection limits as the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning that those certified foods contain the same levels of pesticides as all the other non-organic produce in the market.

To get the real thing: Support food companies that support organic. The only way to protect yourself and your family from the damages of synthetic pesticides is to buy certified organic foods that were grown without them.

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