Food Labelling: A Handy Guide to Not Believing What You Read

Food Labelling: A Handy Guide to Not Believing What You Read

VicesFebruary 24, 2021

It’s well-known that America loves a frivolous consumer lawsuit. Lawyers across the country know that they can make a living by launching class-actions against companies, often for the most trivial of reasons linked to claims by those companies. Sometimes the cases are thrown out of court, and other times the companies settle; rarely are the riches delivered that the claimants originally dreamed of. 

Though, the truth is that companies are fairly adept at protecting themselves from litigation when it comes to issues like labelling. That’s the reason you have “caution: hot liquid” on a McDonald’s coffee cup. Yes, the label is for idiots, but the companies have to do it lest they spend time fighting lawsuits from said idiots.  

When it comes to food labelling, companies also know the rules set out by bodies like the FDA and USDA. More precisely, they know how to work around them. The labelling of food and drinks is, therefore, not always what it seems. Below we pick out six examples of labelling that can be deceptive. But don’t expect any class-actions, as companies seem to be working within the law: 

Sugar-Free 

Nowadays, most consumers are aware that sugar-free doesn’t mean free from sugar. The FDA’s guidelines for products that can be labelled sugar-free is 0.5g per serving. The recommended daily intake is about 25g for women, 38g for men. So the intake of sugar from sugar-free products is not bad, especially when you consider there is 39g of sugar in a 12oz can of Coca-Cola. However, you should also be aware of what could effectively be called the 20% rule. As pointed out by Market Watch a few years ago, the FDA gives up to 20% leeway from claims compared to what is on the label, so a product could contain 20% more sugar than claimed. The reverse is true for claims of vitamins and minerals, with the FDA requiring that the product has 80% or more of what is advertised. Thus if a product claims that it has 60mg of Vitamin C, it only needs 48mg to pass FDA scrutiny.

No-Added-Sugar 

Most of us are wise to the fact that no added sugar/no sugars added does not mean a product is low in sugar or sugar-free. In fact, the reverse is often true. The main culprits here are usually breakfast cereals and fruit-based drinks. Granola, for example, is widely touted as being healthy, but it is packed full of sugar. Kellogg’s No Added Sugar Granola has 5.4g of sugar per 45g serving. Fruit is full of the sugar, fructose. If we eat whole fruit, the fiber helps our bodies with the absorption of the fructose. When it comes to fruit juice, that fiber is removed (more or less), and that’s problematic for our sugar intake. The workaround for companies here is that they can add fruit juice concentrate to products like smoothies, and yet still claim there is no added sugar. In this sense, the fruit juice concentrate is being added as a sweetener. But it is sugar being added, and it hard to fathom why the FDA allows this.  

Natural

Natural sounds good, right? But when it comes on a food label, natural doesn’t really mean anything at all. The flexibility of the word gives producers license to bend the truth. You can find Natural Cheetos, for example, which have presumably been freshly picked from a Cheeto tree. More worryingly, meat pumped full of antibiotics can still fall under the natural label. The FDA doesn’t have guidelines around the use of ‘natural’, and only some flexible ones around the term ‘all-natural’.  A better label, and one that gives an insight into the FDA and USDA’s thinking, is ‘minimally-processed’. 

Organic     

Organic is not as flexible as natural, and it has clearer definitions from regulatory authorities. The USDA has clear guidelines on what should be labelled as organic. With meat, for instance, the USDA requires that the animals should be raised in conditions that reflect their natural habitat, not be fed antibiotics or hormones, and, in turn, be fed organic feed. That’s pretty clear cut. The problem comes in the (relatively) small fines handed out to companies who mislead with organic labelling – just over $17K, which many companies could shrug off. The key to organic is finding companies that believe in the product, not the labelling. You can see with this guide to organic meal kit delivery that some are very passionate about being transparent, showing the food’s journey from farm to fork.  

Multigrain 

Multigrain is one of those phrases that automatically sound healthy, but which is deceptive. In fairness to food companies, they aren’t lying. Multigrain means exactly what it says – several types of grain have been used in the product. Does that mean it’s good? Nope. The Mayo Clinic points out that it is whole-grain that you should be looking for. Whole-grain products contain all the parts of a grain kernel, included the good nutritious stuff. Multigrain is not bound by such regulation, so it could be all the bad parts of different grain types. 

High in Fiber 

We are often told to get more fiber in our diets, as, among other benefits, it helps our digestive systems. However, not all fibers are good, and companies can boast that products are high in fiber when it is the wrong kind.  These fibers, which have been called ‘fake fibers’, can have the opposite effect of good fiber – gas, bloating, stomach aches. A tip is to look for ingredients like chicory root, maltodextrin and polydextrose on the ingredient list – and avoid.