By Dr. Mercola
Are the words written on food packaging honest?
Many corporations hire lawyers to carefully craft words that are just barely on the side of being legal. The Yahoo health site has collected eight common package proclamations that are red flags of "crafty" advertising.
Flavored: Both artificial and natural flavors are actually made in laboratories, and natural flavors are not necessarily healthier than artificial ones.
Pure: "100 percent pure" products such as orange juice can be doctored with flavor packs for aroma and taste.
Nectar: While 'nectar' may sound particularly wholesome, it's really just a fancy name for "not completely juice." These "diluted juice beverages" may contain more high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners than fruit puree.
Fat free: Some cooking sprays are "fat free" only if they are sprayed for a fraction of a second to produce a microscopic "serving".
The Importance of Deciphering Food Labels
It's unfortunate, but reading food labels isn't as easy as you might think. In addition to determining what ingredients are in the food, you also need to have the foundational knowledge of how to decipher certain verbiage used to describe them. The words listed above are just a few of the words that can be used to mislead you.
Below, I'll review a few more label items that are often used in deceptive ways, or that may lead you to buy a product you'd otherwise avoid:
- Vitamin and mineral claims
- The "All Natural" label
- The "Organic" label
- Misleading nutritional facts
- Dangerous ingredients not required to be listed on any food label
Beware of Vitamin and Mineral Claims
In an effort to optimize your diet, you may reach for so-called fortified foods; products that proclaim to be more healthful due to their vitamin or mineral content. Unfortunately, foods fortified with "extra" nutrients are nearly always processed, and the nutrients added are typically synthetic; neither of which will promote your health.
Likewise, most commercial vitamin supplements are synthetic vitamins that have been robbed of all of the co-factors and accessory micronutrients that they naturally associated with. In turn, just like refined foods, they can create numerous problems and imbalances in your body if taken for long periods of time. They can also act more like drugs in your body. At the very least, they won't be as beneficial as high quality food and whole food-based supplements are.
When it comes to foods fortified with minerals, matters can get even worse. Be particularly wary of foods fortified with iron, such as many breakfast cereals, as some of these have been shown to contain actual iron filings, which is not the ideal way to supplement your body with iron.
What Does the "All Natural" Label Really Mean?
When it comes to processed food bearing this label, it means virtually nothing... This is because there's no standard definition for the term "all natural" when used on processed foods, which leaves it wide open for creative interpretation. The term is only regulated on meat and poultry, for which an item labeled "natural" may not contain any:
- Artificial flavors
- Chemical preservatives
But in the processed food arena, a "natural" product can be virtually anything; it can be genetically modified, full of pesticides, made with corn syrup, additives, preservatives and artificial ingredients...
If You Want Organic, There's Only One Label that Can Assure it
Similar problems pester the organic label. There's really only one organic label out there that means anything as far as organic food is concerned, and that's the USDA Certified Organic label.
This seal, which is governed by the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP), is your BEST assurance of organic food quality. (As a side note, it's also the international gold standard for personal care products that contain organic agricultural ingredients, because the ingredients in USDA certified beauty products are certified organic for food, adhering to much stricter standards as they are intended specifically for human consumption.)
There are three "tiers" within the USDA organic label:
- Products labeled "100% Organic" must contain only organically produced materials
- Products labeled simply "Organic" must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients
- The label "Made with organic ingredients" can contain anywhere between 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients
Farmers and growers of organic produce bearing the USDA seal have to meet the strictest standards of any organic label. USDA certified organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones. And in order to qualify as an organic crop, it must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity.
For example, crops must be grown without:
- Synthetic pesticides
- Bioengineered genes
- Petroleum-based fertilizers
- Sewage sludge-based fertilizers
Organic products also cannot be irradiated, are not allowed to contain preservatives or flavor enhancing chemicals, nor can they contain traces of heavy metals or other contaminants in excess of tolerances set by the FDA. The pesticide residue level cannot be higher than 5 percent of the maximum EPA pesticide tolerance. (For the complete National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances under the USDA organic label, see this link.) So remember, if you see anything that says it's "organic," it must specify "USDA Certified Organic" to be meaningful.
What You Need to Know about Nutrition Labels
Other factors that can make labels less than helpful include the nutrition facts and the stated serving size.
It's important to understand that while the FDA does check food labels, they only check to see whether or not the Nutrition Facts panel is present. They rarely ever verify that the nutrition facts are true and accurate. Furthermore, the government allows foods to contain 20 percent more diet-damaging ingredients than the label lists before taking enforcement action. So while certainly a useful and important start, reading the Nutrition Facts panels on foods may not be as reliable an indicator of a food's nutrients as you may think.
The FDA also allows processed food manufacturers to use absurdly tiny serving sizes on their labels, which can lull you into a false sense of security when it comes to determining how much of each stated nutrient or toxin, like trans-fat, you're actually consuming. If the serving size is small enough then trans-fats can fall under the minimum requirement for labeling them, meaning they are left off the label entirely despite the fact they are present in the product. Needless to say, this tactic is intentionally employed, to make the product appear more healthful than it actually is
It is deceptive labeling tricks like these that can leave you eating things you would rather avoid.
Another example well worth mentioning here is the lack of any requirement to label genetically modified components in packaged foods, even though this is mandated law in the entire European Union. In the US, you simply will never know if GM foods are present in your processed food, but more than likely they are—especially if the product contains soy or corn, or any derivative thereof...
Fortunately, we now have a practical plan to end this disaster. By educating the public about the risks of GM foods through a massive education campaign, and launching a ballot initiative in California for 2012 that will require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods and food ingredients, the plan is to generate a tipping point of consumer rejection to make GMOs a thing of the past. To learn how you can be part of this important movement, please see The California Ballot Initiative: Taking Down Monsanto.
How to Choose High-Quality Foods for Yourself and Your Family
While reading labels on everything you buy is important, when it comes to food, you're far better off limiting or eliminating foods that require a listing of its ingredients in the first place. What are you left with? Fresh (preferably organic) WHOLE foods!
Remember, virtually ALL processed foods contain cheap, chemical-laden ingredients that will eventually take their toll on your health. By educating yourself on what 'healthy food' really is, and how not to be led astray by label claims that toe the line in terms of being truthful, you'll be well on your way toward a healthier you.