When Food Labels Don’t Tell the Whole Truth

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/yeknom02/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/yeknom02/

Every day in homes across the U.S., consumers consult food packaging to determine what they are eating. At restaurants and fast-food establishments, nutritional information is posted and read. Consumers depend on the labels to select the best option for them, whether this be the lowest calories, least processed, or “healthiest.” The labels and claims adhere to guidance set by the United States Department of Agriculture (or, USDA), and the Food and Drug Administration (or, FDA).

But this guidance can fall into a labeling grey area; “organic,” and “natural” are two terms that can exist in this ether. “Organic” has tiers, and different restrictions apply to each. At the entry level is the use of organic ingredients. If a product wants to display “made with” organic ingredients, 70 percent of those listed must be certified organic, and the remaining 30 percent of the product does not have to comply.

Next is the term “organic,” which can use the USDA’s organic seal, but 5 percent of the product may be composed of non-organic items. The label “100 percent Organic” is the only one that requires all ingredients to be certified organic and that any processing that takes place must adhere to organic standards.

“Natural” on a label fares worse than organic does. In a letter dated January 7, the FDA stated it “has not promulgated a formal definition of the term ‘natural’ with respect to foods. The agency has, however, said that its policy regarding the use of the term ‘natural’ on food labeling means that ‘nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.’”

If the FDA did start regulating “natural” it would need to to consult other agencies, and would encounter a score of problems, the agency explains. From consumer preferences, to food production technologies — like pasteurization — the FDA says there are many reasons that even if the agency did begin the process, there is no guarantee it would be fruitful.

On a USDA page, it says that “minimal processing” is permitted as long as it does not “fundamentally alter” the product. A multitude of chemicals and acids are considered by the USDA to be “processing aids,” and “generally recognized as safe.” As this list details, under certain circumstances, these treatments do not have to be listed on packages. Ammonium hydroxide, for example, can “adjust the pH of brine solutions prior to injection into meat,” and no notice has to be given. According to the FDA, it has passed tests required for food safety. However, if a person is buying meat because the label gives them the allusion it is free of chemical treatments, that is not actually the case.

Just as murky as the term natural, is the label “free-range.” The National Chicken Council explains that there is no strict definition of what is and is not free-range. It generally means that for some part of the day, chickens are permitted to leave their coops. On the USDA’s labeling fact-sheet, this is further demonstrated. To qualify as free-range, a producer needs to “demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” Time and conditions are not considered, and it only applies to poultry, not any other type of meat.

All of this and other labeling regulations are the requirements for food and products purchased to prepare inside the home. Restaurants, and what are considered away-from-home foods, have a different set of standards. Calling them “standards,” may be a stretch. The USDA provides “A Labeling Guide for Restaurants and Other Retail Establishments Selling Away-From-Home Foods,” but that does not equal regulation. Instead, the guide “represents the best advice of FDA, it does not have the force and effect of law.”

Restaurants do not have to follow full USDA “Nutrition Facts format.” A communication from a waiter about the nutritional content of a food can suffice, and if a restaurant makes a claim about a food, the only information it must provide is the information directly related to that claim. (i.e. if a food is “low-fat” the fat content needs to be available.)

Restaurants can also make the claim that food is a healthy choice, with no regulation on what “healthy” is. The guide states that, “When a term such as ‘Wholesome’ or ‘Nutritious’ is used in a context that does not render it an implied claim (e.g., ‘Nutritious foods, prepared fresh daily’ or ‘Made with wholesome ingredients’), it is not subject to the claims requirements.”

On the surface, this appears as common sense, but with a number of restaurant establishments and fast-food chains wanting to capitalize on “healthy” food products, the labeling can be misleading, causing people to assume their fresh salad is the best option.

Panera is a chain that often proclaims fresh ingredients and better choices. The Fuji Apple Chicken Salad listed on its menu has 550 calories, 34 grams of fat, and 620 milligrams of sodium. If you were to order a Big Mac from McDonald’s, you’d ingest the same number of calories, 29 grams of fat, and 970 milligrams of sodium. Depending on what part of your diet you want to improve, the salad may not be a better option, but it could be marketed to create the illusion that it is.

Instead of having clearly stated standards, terms are increasingly subjective, and can be manipulated by marketers to entice consumers to purchase a product. With little direction, or actual regulation by regulatory agencies, this leaves the task of sorting out how foods have been treated, and the truthfulness of health claims to consumers with limited information regarding the product. The best example of this may come from extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is a key component of the popular “Mediterranean Diet,” with supposed health benefits ranging from weight loss to cardiovascular health. In the U.S., though, standards are more fluid compared to the rest of the world.

Research conducted at UC Davis has found that as much as 70 percent of olive oil sold in the U.S. is of a lower quality, meaning it has fewer health benefits. Consumer Reports came to a similar conclusion after its own experiments: “In our tests of 23 extra-virgin olive oils last year, we found that most had flaws that made them unworthy of the label, not to mention the premium price it typically fetches.” In the U.S., olive oil standards are voluntary, and manufacturers opt out of processes that would lead to a higher standard of olive oil for consumers. Lacking impetus to do so, such as regulations on the industry, consumers purchase an inferior product, for a higher price.