Truth In Food Labeling – How You Are Legally Deceived

Image via Center for Science in the Public Interest

Understanding Deceptive Nutrition Labels

In the post Truth In Food Labeling – Do You Know What You Are Really Buying?, we took a look at how the food manufacturing industry creatively deceives the public through misleading food labeling. Today, let’s take a deeper look at exactly how this achieved.

Many consumers wonder how a food manufacture can deceive consumers if the Nutrition Facts section on food packaging list all the substances that go into a food product. Here are a few of the most common ways:

One of the most common tricks is to distribute sugars among many ingredients so that sugars don’t appear in the top three. For example, a manufacturer may use a combination of sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, brown sugar, dextrose and other sugar ingredients to make sure none of them are present in large enough quantities to attain a top position on the ingredients list.  This fools consumers into thinking the food product isn’t really made mostly of sugar while, in reality, the majority ingredients could all be different forms of sugar. It’s a way to artificially shift sugar farther down the ingredients list and thereby misinform consumers about the sugar content of the whole product.

In addition, many companies try to make a product sound more healthful by promoting “natural sweeteners” in the ingredient list. For more information on natural sweeteners and the deception behind them, please visit A Hard Look At The Benefits and Concerns of Natural Sweeteners.

Another trick is to pad the list with minuscule amounts of great-sounding ingredients. Healthy-sounding berries, herbs or superfoods that are often only present in miniscule amounts, will often be included in the ingredient list to fool consumers into thinking the product is a nutritional powerhouse. Having “goji berries” appear at the end of the ingredients list is practically meaningless. There’s not enough goji berries in the food to have any real effect on your health. This trick is called label padding and it’s commonly used by junk food manufacturers who want to jump on the health food bandwagon without actually producing healthy foods.

A third trick involves hiding dangerous ingredients behind innocent-sounding names that fool consumers into thinking they’re safe. The highly carcinogenic ingredient sodium nitrite, for example, sounds perfectly innocent, but it is well documented to cause brain tumors, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer and many other cancers. Carmine sounds like an innocent food coloring, but it’s actually made from the smashed bodies of red cochineal beetles. Of course, nobody would eat strawberry yogurt if the ingredients listed, “Insect-based red food coloring” on the label, so instead, they just call it carmine.

Similarly, yeast extract sounds like a perfectly safe food ingredient but it’s actually a trick used to hide monosodium glutamate (MSG, a chemical taste enhancer used to excite the flavors of overly-processed foods) without having to list MSG on the label. Lots of ingredients contain hidden MSG. Virtually all hydrolyzed or autolyzed ingredients contain some amount of hidden MSG.

Often times the name of the food product has nothing to do with what’s in it. Sounds bizarre right? Well, brand-name food companies make products like Guacamole Dip that contain no avocado! Instead, they’re made with hydrogenated soybean oil and artificial green coloring chemicals. But consumers keep on buying these products, thinking they’re getting avocado dip when, in reality, they’re buying green-colored, yummy-tasting garbage.

There is no requirement for food ingredients lists to include the names of chemical contaminants, heavy metals, bisphenol-A, PCBs, perchlorate or other toxic substances found in the food. As a result, ingredient lists don’t really list what is actually in the food, they only list what the manufacturer wants you to believe is in the food. I’m sure you are wondering how this is even legal. In short, requirements for listing food ingredients were created by a joint effort between the government and private industry (food corporations). In the beginning, food corporations didn’t want to be required to list any ingredients at all. They claimed the ingredients were proprietary knowledge and that listing them would destroy their business by disclosing their secret manufacturing recipes. This was just a cover as food companies primarily want to keep consumers ignorant of what’s really in their products.

That’s why there is still no requirement to list various chemical contaminants, pesticides, heavy metals and other substances that have a direct and substantial impact on the health of consumers. (For years, food companies fought hard against the listing of trans fatty acids, too, and it was only after a massive public health outcry by consumer health groups that the FDA finally forced food companies to include trans fats on the label.)

Food companies have also figured out how to manipulate the serving size of foods in order to make it appear that their products are devoid of harmful ingredients like trans fatty acids. The FDA created a loophole for reporting trans fatty acids on the label. Any food containing 0.5 grams or less of trans fatty acids per serving is allowed to claim ZERO trans fats on the label. Exploiting this 0.5 gram loophole, companies arbitrarily reduce the serving sizes of their foods to ridiculous levels, just enough to bring the trans fats down to 0.5 grams per serving. Then they proclaim on the front of the box, “ZERO Trans Fats!” In reality, the product may be loaded with trans fats (found in hydrogenated oils), but the serving size has been reduced to a weight that might only be appropriate for feeding a mouse, not a human being.

Until consumers demand changes that will benefit their health, food manufactures will continue to play the label manipulation game. It is up to us force a much needed change in food labeling requirements. Until then, there will be little truth in adverting.

Although there is a lot of learn and a lot to be weary of, take the baby steps now to reclaim your freedom to nourish your body with REAL food – not what manufacturers are claiming is healthful for you. Stay tuned for the final part in this series where we examine what baby steps you can take to help you on your journey to more healthful living.