Even then, you have to know how to interpret what the label says to be absolutely certain that you're getting what you want.
The best advice is to simply not eat any processed foods at all. But if you must, a short list of ingredients and phrases to avoid includes artificial colors, artificial flavorings, artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, sodium nitrates or nitrites, and others.
Maybe you didn't read the ingredient list on your "natural" product until you got home, only to notice some very UN-natural looking ingredients listed there, and wondered how there could be such an enormous difference between the front of the bag and the back.
As it turns out, most of what's on the label is marketing hype and splashy design work, made only to seduce you into believing the product is good for you. And as you'll see, you have to be very market-savvy to find the truth, because labels have fooled even the smartest shoppers. It's easy to be duped, if you don't know what to look for.
How Many People Actually READ Food Labels?
Have you ever wondered how many people actually select their food based on what the label says? In 2006, a survey was taken on more than 1,000 adults. The results might surprise you:
- 80 percent of Americans read labels for things like calories, fat, sugar, and salt, but 44 percent buy food products, regardless of what the label says
- 65 percent of women read labels, compared to 51 percent of men
- 39 percent of young people (ages 18 to 29) said they look at calories on food labels, but 60 percent of them buy them, regardless of the label
There is obviously quite a bit of denial operating in the collective American psyche!
What the FDA Does and Doesn't Do
You might be surprised to learn that the FDA does not require foods to be laboratory tested for nutritional content. While the FDA does check food labels, they only check to see whether or not the Nutrition Facts panel is present—not whether or not it's accurate.
The labeling law allows food companies to simply estimate average values for fat, protein, carbohydrates, sugar, etc., for any given product, based on a standard list of ingredients. So, how accurate do they have to be to avoid violating labeling laws? The FDA says a 20 percent margin of error is acceptable. Even getting 20 percent more fat or sugar than you want will really add up over time. But the truth is, it's much worse than that.
EXPECT Labels to Lie!
The FDA estimates that roughly ten percent of food product labels contain inaccuracies. Ten percent? Really? When actually analyzed by a laboratory, most grocery and restaurant foods are MUCH higher than advertised in fats, carbohydrates, sugars and sodium. According to a BBC News article, food testers from Which? magazine analyzed 570 nutrients listed on 70 products. Only 7 percent matched what the label said—levels of fat, salt, calories and carbs were inaccurate in 93 percent of products tested. The results were surprising:
- One biscuit was found to have three times the amount of saturated fat claimed on the label
- One type of pizza was found to have 80 percent more fat
- Cadbury's Light Truffles were found to have 23 percent more fat than was claimed on the label
A 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that about 24 percent of food labels were inaccurate. Also in 2008, Good Morning America hired a lab to test a dozen packaged food products to see if the nutrients matched the labels, and all 12 products exceeded what was claimed on the label, in one way or another (primarily fat, sugar and sodium).
Manufacturers get away with this because punishment for violations is a joke. For a first offense, information about the food is entered into a database, but the product is still allowed on store shelves. If a second violation is detected within 60 days, then the product may be suspended. But here's the catch: since food testing is very infrequent, it is highly unlikely that a second offense will be caught within their 60-day time frame.
This effectively allows food manufacturers to do whatever they want and slant their claims however they wish, based on the demographic they want to manipulate. The marketing of children's foods is a perfect example. Prevention Institute investigated package labeling for children's foods in 2010. They found 84 percent of products advertised as "healthiest picks for kids" did not meet even basic nutritional standards. And the next time you see ""zero trans fats" on a label, don't believe it. Manufacturers are allowed to use that phrase as long as the product contains less than 0.5 grams per serving. Look at the ingredient list and see if it contains some hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
The Official USDA Organic Seal
There are a few buzzwords to watch out for on the front of the box that say absolutely nothing about the true nutritional value of what's inside. Here are a few common marketing ploys:
- "All natural ingredients," or "100 percent natural"
- "No artificial preservatives" (do they mean all they use only real preservatives?)
- "Real fruit" (just because the package shows a picture of an apple doesn't mean the apple has to be in there)
Statements like those are unregulated and are designed to appeal to the gullible health-conscious, but do not reflect nutritional content. Marketers hope you're uninformed enough to accept those statements at face value—hoping you'll just grab the bag and go. Even phrases like "all organic" have little meaning without the official USDA Organic seal, which is your best assurance of quality.
Growers and manufacturers of organic products bearing the USDA seal have to meet the strictest standards of any of the currently available organic labels, in terms of being free of antibiotics and growth hormones, pesticides, heavy metals, preservatives, chemicals, irradiation, etc. That said, even the USDA Organic seal has been greatly compromised over the past several years.
The Rapid Decay of the Organic Label
Organic food now represents a $16-billion business, with sales growing by as much as 20 percent per year. Unfortunately, the quality and meaning of the organic label is undergoing an equally fast decline.
Organic foods were once truly raised naturally, on small farms with great integrity. But with the skyrocketing popularity of the organic food industry, big business has now stepped in and tainted many of the principles upon which the organic label was founded.
Wal-Mart, for instance, is now the largest organic retailer in the United States. According to the Organic Consumers Association, the mega-store is:
- Selling organic milk that comes from intensive confinement factory farm dairies
- Importing cheap organic foods and ingredients from China and Brazil
- Posting signs in its stores that mislead people into believing that non-organic items are actually organic
The sad fact is, you are being ripped off by much of the organic food you are buying. For example, consider all of those "organic" junk foods like ice cream, crackers, cookies, pizzas and potato chips. A potato chip is one of the worst foods you can eat, regardless of whether or not the potato is organic. Yet big business is cashing in on your desire to "have your cake and eat it too" by trying to make you believe you can eat cake, cookies, ice cream and potato chips without feeling guilty—because they're "organic." The same deception is beginning to happen with the word "local." How local is local? Is it grown within your:
"Local" is yet another unregulated term that clever marketers are using to increase sales. Without visiting the farm, it's hard to know what "local" really is.
Some states actually regulate geographic claims, but many do not. For example, in Vermont, a product labeled as "local" must originate within 30 miles of where it is sold. And in California, farmers selling produce through California Farmers' Markets must grow the produce within the state of California, which could be 5 miles away or 400.
And realize that neither "organic" nor "local" reveals anything about the size, sustainability, or humaneness of the farm.
Additives that Should be Subtracted
In 1958, Congressman James Delaney of New York authored an amendment to the Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1938 called the Delaney Clause, stating:
"...The Secretary of the Food and Drug Administration shall not approve for use in food any chemical additive found to induce cancer in man, or, after tests, found to induce cancer in animals."
One of the problems is, additives that were "GRAS" (generally regarded as safe) prior to this amendment were "grandfathered in"—and some of them are now known to be carcinogenic. The following are a few examples of food additives to watch out for in your ingredient list:
- MSG—a flavor enhancer; this agent is a potent neurotoxin that can cause anything from migraines to Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease; hidden in a multitude of other ingredients, including autolyzed yeast, glutamate, textured protein, gelatin, natural flavors, barley malt and soy sauce, to name a few.
- Sodium nitrite and nitrate—preservatives added to processed meats that are carcinogenic.
- BHA and BHT—preservatives added to processed foods, also linked to cancer.
- Potassium bromate—added to many white flours and baked goods, this endocrine disruptor damages your thyroid and can cause psychiatric and cardiac problems; most countries have banned it, except for the U.S. and Japan.
- Common food dyes—such as Citrus Red No. 2, which is used to dye your oranges orange... unless you buy organic oranges. Like most FD&C dyes, this dye is derived from coal tar, which is a human carcinogen. If you zest a non-organic orange, you may be consuming this dye.
A Quick Word on GMO Labeling
Until we succeed in getting a labeling law for all genetically modified foods, the only way to be somewhat assured a food is non-GMO is if it is labeled specifically as such, or if it holds the official USDA organic seal. And even this is no longer a certainty due to widespread seed contamination. For example, your chance of acquiring a genetically modified Hawaiian papaya is 50/50—even if you're buying one that's certified organic.
The idea that you can identify GM produce by its PLU code is a myth, which Jeffrey Smith fully dispels in his 2010 Huffington Post article. You can download his Non-GMO Shopping Guide from the Institute for Responsible Technology for more GMO information.The BEST Solution There are no easy answers when it comes to deciphering food labels, but there are simple strategies that can help ensure you know exactly what you're eating, such as:
- Avoiding packaged or processed foods
- Selecting whole foods
- Shopping around the perimeter of the grocery store
- Preparing your food at home
It really comes down to a change in mindset—choosing to eat "real" food that has been minimally processed and tampered with—like fresh produce, organic meat and eggs. Even better, choose food that is humanely and sustainably raised/produced near you. Shop at your local farmers market or co-op; get to know your farmers personally. Here are a few resources for finding wholesome food that supports you, as well as the environment:
- Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals: The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
- Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA): CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
- FoodRoutes: The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSA's, and markets near you.
- Local Harvest: Another good database for finding the best fresh, organic food grown near you.
If you're unsure of how to start, I suggest you read my book Take Control of Your Health for a comprehensive nutrition program based on natural, whole foods. You can also check out my free online nutrition plan, which provides step-by-step suggestions about how begin your nutritional transformation.