Truth and Wisdom in Food Labeling – A vital issue
Consumers have a right to know the contents of the foods they buy. This was part of the reason the 1994 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was created. But even with the ramped-up requirements it mandated, deception can be found on everything from the Nutrition Facts section to the symbols, logos, pictures on labels and product names (Walker, 2017).
In her book Hype, author Dr. Nina Shapiro notes that each trip you make to a store where food is sold, you will be “encountering vague claims that will dupe you.” In her chapter about food labeling, she discussed many deceiving words and phrases on packaging but particularly illuminating were her comments about foods and fluids identified as organic. That label indicates no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers were used in growing the food and animals weren’t given hormones or antibiotics. Even that seemingly straightforward definition is subject to abuse. The phrase “made with organic ingredients” could be interpreted as 100% organic but per the FDA only 70% of those ingredients have to be organic.
There’s another pitfall you may run across with labeling. More than a few items make the serving size incredibly small and the number of servings in the package abnormally high so that the negatives don’t seem quite so bad. For example, a package of yogurt-coated dried cranberries listed a serving as only 2 tablespoons but that small handful of it contains 140 calories and 25% of the recommended saturated fat intake for the day (Liebman, 2016).
What information should be included on labels? That isn’t as easy to determine as it might seem. There are consequences to including items on labels. There have been requests for the FDA to define the term natural for regulatory purposes but they refuse because it is almost impossible to pin that down in a way that would be helpful. Genetically modified organisms (GMO) and genetically engineered labeling has also been requested by consumers. There’s been a lot of research that hasn’t uncovered anything dangerous about such foods. If the FDA mandated GMO or GE labeling, it could lead consumers to question the safety of it. After all, if the FDA required such labeling, the thinking might go, it must not be safe (Sax and Doran, 2016).
So, in the final analysis, labels on the front of packaging should be regarded with a healthy degree of skepticism and the Nutrition Facts on the back evaluated carefully. But keep in mind, processed foods are often inferior to the products you’ll find in the produce and other unprocessed food aisles. Those foods have no list of ingredients because what you see is what you get, and probably needs no spin.
- Liebman, B. April Fools. Nutrition Action Healthletter, April, 2016.
- Lurie, P., M.D. Taking “Big Food” to Court. Nutrition Action Healthletter, April, 2016.
- Sax, J., and Doran, N. Food Labeling and Consumer Associations with Health, Safety, and Environment. Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics. Winter, 2016.
- Shapiro, Dr. Nina. Hype. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2018
- Walker, M.J. Health and Nutrition claims – guidance, regulation and self-regulation. Nutrition Bulletin, 42, 2017.