It’s a fact of the grocery store that the most healthy food often has the least marketing muscle behind it. The best sources of fiber and vitamins are fresh vegetables and fruit, and yet it’s the processed, packaged junk food fortified with vitamin and fiber powder that screams for attention. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently published a comprehensive report on the subject, a persuasive indictment delicately called “Food Labeling Chaos.”
“Consumers need honest labeling so they can spend their food dollars wisely and avoid diet-related disease,” said CSPI senior staff attorney Ilene Ringel Heller, co-author of the report. “Companies should market their foods without resorting to the deceit and dishonesty that’s so common today. And, if they don’t, the FDA should make them.”
You can often decipher the truth amid the lies and misdirection by carefully reading food labels.
We take a look at nine things the CSPI identified as the most common ways food labels mislead so you can prepare before your next trip to the grocery store.
Made with whole grains
You’re standing in the grocery aisle, faced with a choice. On the one hand, there are the Thomas’ English Muffins of your youth: White and filled with nooks and crannies practically screaming to be filled with pools of melted butter. On the other: Thomas’ Hearty Grains English Muffins, which are “made with the goodness of whole grains.” You reach, somewhat grudgingly, for the healthy option, since experts tell you that 50% of your grains should be whole grains.
What you don’t realize is that unbleached wheat flour is the main ingredient; whole wheat flour is the third on the list, “indicating that the product contains relatively little,” according to the CSPI.
Once again, one truth — the presence of whole grains — masks another, that whole grains make up an insignificant portion of the food.
Some products that trumpet their whole-grain credentials (like Keebler’s Zesta saltine crackers) use caramel to mimic the brown color that results from the use of whole grains. In fact, the CSPI notes that these crackers have almost as much salt as whole grains. Other purportedly healthy crackers have more sugar than whole wheat.
So much for healthy whole grains (or truth in advertising).
What could be more straight-forward than ingredient lists? So you might think, but there’s a lot of room for deception and misdirection in the average ingredient list, which lists ingredients in order from most to least.
Exhibit A from the CSPI: the Tasty Living Mocha Cherry Double Chocolate Layer Cake. The first ingredient is enriched wheat flour.
This cake must be sort-of nutritious, since it’s mostly made out of nutritious wheat flour, right? Sorry, but the biggest ingredient in this cake is sugar, as the CSPI points out. How is it possible?
Just add up all the sugars that go by different names: sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, and white grape juice concentrate. Boom! This cake is nearly one-third sugar.
The CSPI argues that U.S. nutrition labels and ingredient lists should be more consumer friendly. By grouping major ingredients and separating minor ingredients, we’d all be better able to make smarter purchases.
Which can of diced tomatoes is 60% tomato and 40% water, and which is 70% tomato? How much fruit is actually in that fruity-looking “health” bar? Right now, there’s no way to know … without a chemistry kit.
A 20-oz. soda fits easily in your hand, fits easily in your car’s cup holder, and might even come free with a sandwich at the local deli. But even if a reasonable person might perceive that bottle as a single-serving delivery system, there are 2.5 official servings in there, meaning 100 calories per “serving” … but 240 calories per bottle.
While major soda bottlers have begun spelling out this single-serving conundrum to the junk food-consuming public, most serving-size calculations are based on standards developed decades ago!
Just try to remember the size of the sodas and popcorn customarily dolled out in 1977 at the drive-in, compared to today at the megaplex, and you get a sense for how much our sense of portion proportion has gone out of whack (er, changed) in the last generation.
And yet, the serving-size data on our foods reflect a slimmer more restrained era, when an 8-oz. soda was a weekly treat, not a single glug between fistfuls of Cool Ranch Doritos (serving size: 11 chips).
How many people do you know restrain themselves to 11 chips? Or to a 1/2 cup of ice cream? Or a single cup of cooked pasta?
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential component of a healthy diet, but that doesn’t mean every product emblazoned with the word is a healthy source of it.
The FDA allows certain foods that are rich in two of the omega-3 fatty acids to advertise that they can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, but only if they’re also low in saturated fats or other risk factors.
Which is why many eggs and some walnuts use this bit of marketing misdirection: The packaging has the phrase “omega 3,” but nothing specifically about heart health, according to the CSPI.
The FDA specifically prohibited eggs from carrying the “qualified health claim” linking omega-3 fatty acids to heart health because eggs are high in cholesterol; it ruled out walnuts because the omega-3 fatty acid found in the nuts isn’t one of the two that has been linked to heart health.
These products, and others, dance around the truth and the law by simply stating that they contain omega 3s, which bathes the food in a healthy light they don’t necessarily deserve.
Made with real fruit
Hey wow! That candy has real fruit in it. It must be good for my kid.
The marketing around “real fruit” is so egregious that, for many shoppers, it doesn’t pass the sniff test. But we all get weak-kneed when faced with something potentially yummy, so let’s take a look at some of those misleading marketing techniques.
Case-in-point: Gerber Fruit Juice Treats for Preschoolers. Its package blooming with pictures of ripe oranges, raspberries, cherries, peaches, grapes, and pineapple, its only fruit-like ingredient is fruit juice concentrate, which the Dietary Guidelines for Americans considers just another form of sugar.
Not surprisingly, the primary ingredients are also sugar and … well, sugar (corn syrup). It’s candy.
Similarly, Betty Crocker Strawberry Splash Fruit Gushers says it’s made with real fruit, but the only thing approximating fruit is pear concentrate (sugar) with Red No. 40 for “strawberry” color. Overall, the gushers are half sugar (a.k.a., candy).
Bottom line: If you want real fruit, buy real fruit. If you want candy, buy candy.
(And watch out for the same tricky marketing used on supposedly vegetable-rich products like Knorr Pasta Sides Chicken Broccoli Fettuccine. As the CSPI points out, there’s more salt than broccoli in this pasta dish. Of course, it isn’t called Chicken Salt Fettuccine … because presumably no one would buy it.)
Zero trans fat
Like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster, we stagger down the grocery aisles, arms outstretched, growling, “Trans fats bad!” And yes, they are bad.
After numerous studies showed that these fats boost “bad” LDL-cholesterol levels and lower “good” HDL-cholesterol counts (they’ve been called “the most potent type of fatty acid in terms of increasing the risk of coronary heart disease”), the U.S. required companies to disclose trans fat content in their foods.
But it’s marketers who made our modern Frankenstein mutter: While some companies reformulated their products to reduce the use of risky fats, many just replaced trans fats with saturated fats.
These reformulated foods are basically just as bad, but they scream one truth: “0 trans fats!” to obscure another: “Still bad for your heart!”
Free range eggs
Ah, the idyllic red barn. The rays of sunshine streaming over the hillside. You feel good buying those “free range” eggs knowing that the chickens tasked with producing those little protein-filled shells lived happy cage-free lives. The sunny label says so.
But the few extra cents you plunk down for the “free range” eggs might be paying a savvy marketer, rather than an ethical farmer, because the government doesn’t regulate the use of the phrase “free range” or “cage free” on eggs.
Legally speaking, it’s meaningless, according to Consumer Reports’ Eco Label Decoder.
The Department of Agriculture does have rules for use of the term on poultry. It means chickens must be granted the luxury of exactly five minutes of “access” to the outdoors everyday, a token prize for a short dirty life that can also include an unceremonious severing of the beak, wing-to-wing crowding in a shed that’s more hangar than coop, and more chicken poop than you ever want to contemplate while planning a meal.
Those eggs you buy may have been raised ethically, with room enough for hens to roam the yard and peck contentedly at the dirt. But there’s no guarantee in the “free range” label.
Fiber is fiber is fiber. Right? Who would have any reason to think otherwise?
You might if you knew the fibers advertised in many foods are mainly “purified powders” called inulin, polydextrose, and maltodextrin, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
These “isolated” unnatural fibers are unlikely to lower blood cholesterol or blood sugar, as other fibers can, and two of the three won’t even “help with regularity,” says the CSPI.
“Currently, fiber is being added to foods such as ice creams, yogurts, juices, and drinks so that manufacturers can brag about their fiber content,” the group contends. “But these products do not contain the traditional sources of fiber associated with a variety of health benefits.”
There may be nothing harmful about maltodextrin, (made from corn, wheat, rice, or potato starch), polydextrose (made from glucose and sorbitol), or inulin (a carbohydrate derived mostly from chicory roots and other plant roots). But these ingredients act more as low-calorie filling agents (and high-value marketing agents) than proven health agents.
For the real thing in fiber, look for foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans.
Tastes like medicine!
Food isn’t medicine … or is it? Certain micronutrients, after all, can prevent diabetes, cure cancer, make you smarter, improve your sex life, polish your furniture, and more…
In truth, the FDA allows food manufacturers to make certain pre-approved “qualified health claims” about the health benefits of nutrients in food, but only if those foods meet a range of healthy criteria, like low fat, cholesterol, and sodium content. But, according to the CSPI, marketers have stretched this inch into a long mile.
For instance, food makers can’t say that their product “helps reduce the risk of heart disease” without FDA approval, so they say that it “helps maintain a healthy heart.” That’s why several public health groups, including the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, have voiced concern about this trend.
In the most famous recent example, the FDA stopped General Mills from labeling Cheerios with cholesterol reducing claims it wouldn’t allow on some prescription drugs. Another, which the California attorney general helped stamp out, was the Kellogg’s claim that its children cereals “support your child’s immunity” because, even though some are 40% sugar, they are fortified with vitamins.
“While a severe deficiency in those vitamins could interfere with the proper functioning of the body’s immune system (and any other system), there is no evidence that Cocoa Krispies actually improves a children’s immune status or wards off disease,” CSPI argues. But Kellogg’s is far from alone.
Even as Kellogg’s stopped that line of marketing, Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice, Juicy Juice Berry Beverage, Nestlé’s Carnation Instant Breakfast, and Kraft’s Crystal Light all make similar claims.
Other foods make claims about boosting your kid’s intelligence (Juicy Juice), protecting healthy joints (orange juice), and improving heart health (Quaker Cinnamon and Spice Instant Oatmeal, which is almost one-third sugar).