Misleading food labels—are you eating what you think you are?

As someone with both personal and career interest in food safety and nutrition, I’m frequently shocked by how little I know. The other day I was leafing through The New American Diet, a book that includes a guide to foods low in endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and I was surprised to read that the “hormone-free” poultry label is basically just a marketing gimmick: the USDA does not allow poultry manufacturers to feed their chickens hormones, so every chicken on the market is hormone-free. While I’m pleased to hear about the USDA’s policy, I’ll admit I’ve been a sucker for years, shelling out way more cash for the “hormone-free” chicken I find at my local grocery store. Wow do I feel like a jerk.

Of course, this is just one example of the many ways in which food manufacturers mislead the American public with their labels. After a little digging—the Center for Science in the Public Interest has done a lot of work in this area—here are four of the craziest examples I have found.

1. “All-natural” or “100% natural” chicken labels say nothing about how the animal was raised or what it was fed. According to the USDA, “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.” Among other things, chicken that is fed antibiotics can still be labeled as “all-natural,” and five years ago, I wrote about regular practice of feeding arsenic to chickens in order to enhance growth. (This arsenic, of course, can later end up in us.) In addition, it seems that many poultry products are labeled as “all-natural” even when they are, in fact, highly processed: many chicken products are injected with a salty marinade that inflates weight and adds extra sodium. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Safeway, Tyson, and Shady Brook Farms’ chickens are a whopping 12 to 15 percent chicken broth. Eww.

2. “Free range” chickens have not necessarily spent their lives parading around rolling pastures. To be labeled as free range, the USDA says that “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” Allowed access, huh? How vague! As it turns out, companies can call their poultry “free-range” if the door to the chicken coop has been left open for just five minutes a day—whether the chickens actually notice that the door is open is another thing entirely. (If you do want a happy chicken, look for “pasture-raised” or “pasture-finished” on the label.)

3. Products that are “made with whole grains” may still contain mostly refined grains. You can figure this one out just by looking at the ingredient list, which names the most prevalent ingredients first. Thomas’ Hearty Grains English Muffins may well be made with whole grains as they tout, but the primary ingredient is unbleached enriched wheat flour—not a whole grain. (Interestingly, in 2004, General Mills requested that the FDA come up with definitions for descriptions like “excellent source of whole grain” and “good source of whole grain,” so that companies could give their consumers a better idea of just how much whole grain a product contains. The FDA denied their petition in 2005, so these descriptions are not currently allowed.) Some products are labeled as containing, say, “10 grams of whole grains per serving,” but that’s not very helpful either: the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that half of the grains we eat be whole grains, but it’s difficult to glean proportions from these labels. Ten grams of whole grain could be 60 percent of the grain in a slice of bread, for instance, but only 18 percent of the grain in two ounces of pasta.

4. Fruit drinks that say they are “made with real fruit” and are “all natural” may not contain fresh fruit, and they may not be natural, either. Betty Crocker’s Strawberry Splash Fruit Gushers, for instance, are labeled as being made with real fruit, but they do not actually contain any strawberries. What they do contain is pear from concentrate, which the Dietary Guidelines for Americans considers to be a form of added sugar, not a good fruit source. In addition, many drinks, such as “All Natural” Snapple Tea, contain the preservative citric acid and are therefore not recognized as natural under FDA policy; although the agency sent Snapple a warning letter in 1992, it seems that the company has ignored them. (Note, too, that many “natural” products also contain high-fructose corn syrup, since the FDA, in a controversial move, now recognizes HFCS as natural.)

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6 Responses to Misleading food labels—are you eating what you think you are?

  1. Josh says:

    > “Betty Crocker’s Strawberry Splash Fruit Gushers”

    I think you could distrust that product on name alone

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  3. mangrist says:

    I’m a sucker, too–I imagine most of us are. I tried the Atkins diet for a while and once I started paying attention I noticed the “official” Atkins purveyors’ willingness to ignore maltitol and other sugar alcohols in their net carb calculations.

  4. Thanks, Misha—I was not aware of this sugar alcohol Atkins “scandal.” Really interesting…

  5. David Kroll says:

    Funny you should mention the good work of CSPI in this context. We’ve been members for about five or six years, primarily to get their Nutrition Action Newsletter. It’s worth a few bucks a year because each issue has the kinds of details you describe and even lists specific brands of foods in tabular form ranked for such things as salt content, total calories, % fat, etc. If I used the information, I’d be a lot healthier.

    Disclaimer: I have no financial relationship with CSPI.