Are the Food Labels You Read Misleading You?

Food labels are designed to look great, but beneath the snazzy packaging and description, they may not give the consumer the full picture. While companies may design their product labels to provide details, in reality, the information could be vague, even misleading.

While there are some labeling rules, laws do not necessarily align to benefit the consumer. For instance, under United States law, companies must meet certain labeling criteria on food items relating to the Nutrition Facts panel. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees this process and provides guidelines on what is expected under these regulations. The Nutrition Facts Panel carries tight criteria, but rules relating to other types of label/package claims are not too clear.

Companies often find ways to meet requirements but may or may not be entirely straightforward. There are claims such as "natural", "fresh", "fat-free", "sugar-free" and other assertions on labels that are ambiguous—and in some cases, not regulated by a labeling requirement at all, such as in the case of including genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in ingredients.

Additionally, often times food labels can legally meet federal guidelines, but still be deceiving in other ways.

What are some ways food labels can be deceptive?

Packaging Presentation

Businesses design their labels to appeal to customers so they'll buy these products instead of purchasing from a competitor. To do this, companies will often include beautiful graphics, boast health benefits and include appealing and appetizing language. This is basic marketing and advertising, however, it doesn't mean it is all true. For instance, that colorful graphic of berries in cereal may not look the same at all once a bowl is poured.

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It might not even mean there is real fruit in the package. Or if the ingredient claims "real fruit", it could mean a minimum amount of berries were put into the entire box, which may not even equate to one serving. Rather than look at the "front label" of a food product, consumers are better off scrutinizing the Nutrition Facts panel and list of ingredients. Remember, the list is specific, items listed first are most in quantity — so if sugar is first and "real fruit" is last, this is an important factor to note as there will be a lot more sugar than fruit in the package.

Organic vs. Natural

It is common to see the words "organic" and "natural" on food packaging, but did you know there is a very important difference between the two? According to an ABC News report earlier this year, a Consumer Reports survey found one-third of people questioned thought organic and natural meant the same thing. They don't. And there is actually a huge difference between the two terms.

The FDA has tightly regulated rules connected with using the word "organic", but the word "natural" can pretty much mean anything, which can be very misleading to consumers. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food watchdog group, referred to it as a "buzz word" in the ABC News report. Companies can use it, but it doesn't mean non-natural ingredients aren't included in the food. If you truly want "natural" food with no chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or other ingredients one might consider undesirable, the label has to state the food is organic.

Alicia Jerome, a registered dietician, tells Dallas News:

"Organic labels also are used when at least 95 percent of the ingredients are certified and can bear the USDA organic seal. The organic ingredients must be identified in these products."

Companies can claim "made with organic ingredients" if 70 percent of the food product is organic, however cannot use the USDA organic seal on the packaging.

Egg Terminology

The packaging claims on eggs and chicken are probably some of the most deceptive and confusing on the market. For instance, terms such as "cage-free" evoke an image of a chicken happily roaming outside in the field. However, legally, all this means is the chicken wasn't cooped up in a battery cage and may never see the light of day, which is a commercial practice increasingly coming under scrutiny. While cage-free is definitely better than a battery cage, the chicken may not have as much freedom as you think.

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Basically, consumers in some countries are buying foods that have been genetically altered and do not know this because a label is not required by law.  This topic is a growing concern for consumers across the globe; GMOs are not required to be labeled in the United States or Canada.  Other countries require strict or semi-strict labeling,  or do not allow GMOs at all, but this varies heavily depending on local laws. Most people in countries that do not require GMO labels aren't likely aware they are consuming foods containing genetically modified ingredients. However, consumers are increasingly asserting their "right to know" and a movement to add GMO labels on food packaging is growing.

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While the law is not currently responding to consumer demand and falling in favor of GMO companies in the U.S. and Canada, some businesses are responding on their own accord to that demand. An example would be the Whole Foods grocery chain which will require its suppliers to label GMOs by the year 2018. General Mills, which does use GMOs in its foods, recently announced one of its signature products, original Cheerios, was going GMO-free.

These are a few examples how labels can be deceptive, but not a complete list by far. As society learns more and more about its food supply, this has stirred levels of controversy and the "right to know" what is in foods and how they are produced. Currently, the U.S. government is in the process of updating food labels, which may include more regulation on "front of the label" packaging. According to Bloomberg News, proposals are currently in process. What this will include is not yet completely ascertained, but the government agency has listed its proposals.

The bottom line for consumers that want to know what they are eating—research the laws, learn the terminology allowed and what it means exactly, and perhaps most importantly, read the fine print on the labels. Especially the ingredient list, as that is where most of the answers you're seeking will be found.