What Do Labels on the Front of Food Packaging Really Mean?
If only we lived and shopped in a world where food labels told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But while consumers rely on labels to make wise nutritional choices, food processors use labels to sell their products. Sometimes these two functions of a label are in conflict. Labels can be misleading, especially if you don’t learn to read between the lines and examine the fine print. Knowing what words on the label really mean is a big step toward making nutritious choices at the supermarket. Familiarize yourself with these 9 food labels so you can see the truth beyond the marketing.
Consider the word “pure.” Who doesn’t want to eat food that’s “pure?” You certainly wouldn’t want to put contaminated food in your body. Here’s the trouble: the word “pure” has no regulated, agreed upon meaning in food labeling. Also, it tells you nothing about what’s in the package that you may not want in your body…
Unfortunately, “natural” is probably the least trustworthy of all the label terms. The FDA has no established definition of the word natural on food labeling. The only restriction on its use is when products contain artificial colors, synthetic substances, or flavors. While the term “natural” sounds appealing, it says very little about the nutritional quality of food, or even its safety. In reality, “natural” is empty of nutritional meaning. Consumers might believe “natural” means the food is pretty much as Mother Nature grew it, but this is seldom the case. For example, high-fructose corn syrup can be labeled as natural because it is derived from corn starch.
3. “Made With”
“Made With” can be very misleading. “Made with real fruit” is a good example. The law does not require the label to specify how much fruit. This boast is particularly prevalent in snacks for children, which may contain a grape or two in a snack that is otherwise mostly sugar. “Made with whole grains” is another little white [label] lie. You as the consumer are led to believe it is a whole grain product, but the label is not required to state how much whole grain is in the product. Its main ingredient could still be refined flour—with only a small amount of whole wheat added. In that case, the food won’t contain all the fiber and other nutrients associated with whole grains.
4. “Sugar Free”
As the saying goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Products labeled sugar free often contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame.
Understand the real meaning of “fat-free” on a label. The FDA allows food to be labeled fat-free if it contains less than 0.5 grams of total fat per serving.
This is often a tip-off that vitamins and minerals have been added back into a product to replace the nutrients lost during the refining process. Enriched flour and enriched white bread are not as nourishing as their whole grain counterparts.
Legally, this term describes the flavor of the food, not how it was made. As the consumer, you imagine the food being smoked in a backyard BBQ, or in an old-fashioned smokehouse. In fact, the food could have been artificially or chemically smoked and/or could just contain smoked flavoring.
8. Fruit “Drinks”
Look at the ingredients to see what’s actually in there. “Drink” in the name of a product tells you that this is not 100% juice. It may, in fact, be mostly sugar and water, with some added Vitamin C. This allows the manufacturer to say an orange drink is “high in Vitamin C,” even if it’s a long way from being real orange juice. Only beverages that are 100% juice may be called “juice.”
And, finally, we’ve saved the most commonly confusing for last. The United States Department of Agriculture regulates the use of the certified organic label. These days, you see foods labeled as organic all over the grocery store. Anything that does not meet the USDA requirements is not permitted to wear that special seal. But what is an organic label supposed to mean? Foods that are labeled as 100% certified organic are foods and ingredients that were grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, in soil free of these substances. But not all “organic” labels are equal. The USDA provides four different organic labels.
- USDA Certified 100% Organic: If your product has a USDA organic seal and says it is 100% organic, this product contains 100% USDA certified organic ingredients, has zero non-organic ingredients in the product, and any processing aids used during product production were 100% USDA certified organic.
- USDA Organic: a product labeled as organic contains at least 95% organic ingredients; up to 5% of the ingredients may be nonorganic. These products are also allowed to have the USDA organic seal.
- Sometimes a product has the label “Made with organic…” According to the USDA, a product with this label must contain at least 70% organic ingredients but watch out for that other 30%.
- A product containing less than 70% organic ingredients may contain specific organic ingredients. The individual ingredients may be labeled as organic, while the others are simply listed. The ingredients listed as organic must be certified Organic and the USDA Organic seal cannot be used on the product.
There are plenty of other terms to be skeptical about too. Experienced label readers look right past the banners and big type on the front and look instead for the ingredients list in small print on the back. Even then, they remain skeptical. The key is to remember that you and your food manufacturer don’t always have the same interests in mind, so be smart and cautious to ensure you are filling your fridge and pantry with the best, most nutritious foods possible.