Every fashionista follows a cardinal rule: Look at the label. The little tag may be understated, but it represents big concepts—quality, style, status. Most importantly, it assures shoppers that the clothing they’re shelling out hundreds of bucks for is the real thing—not a cheap knockoff.
Consumers follow the same principle with the foods they decide to put into their shopping carts. Health-conscious folks pick up cereals because they boast brightly colored labels reading “made with whole grains” and “contains whole wheat.” Moms select certain snacks because they’re “all-natural.” And environmentalists stock up on egg cartons dotted with “cage-free” stickers. Shoppers buy these products over others and are even willing to pay a premium because they want their foods to be nutritious and earth-friendly. If the labels make these claims, they must be true. Right? Wrong. Manufacturers spend billions of dollars each year on deceptive marketing tactics to lure in unsuspecting shoppers. Part of that strategy includes using labels [PDF] that overstate foods’ nutritional content or production methods. Worse yet, many of these labels and misleading phrases aren’t even regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Intentionally misleading customers is perfectly legal, and it’s happening throughout supermarket aisles near you. Arming yourself with information is the best way to navigate these deceptive food labels. Here's our guide to three misleading labels and how you can make sure you’re spending money on the right foods:
Made with Whole Grains/Whole Wheat
According to FDA regulations, breads displaying “100 percent Whole Wheat” labels must be made with only whole-wheat flour. That same principle doesn’t apply to the bevy of other items touting “whole-grain” and “whole-wheat” ingredients.
That’s because the FDA fails to specify what guidelines food producers must meet in order to label their products as “multi-grain,” “whole grain,” and “whole wheat.” Despite the fact that the agency has been promising to define the term “whole grain” since 1993, it has yet to do so. Food producers are left with little more than loosey-goosey labeling guidelines, with consumers paying the price.
According to a recent ABC News investigation, for example, products like “whole grain” Melba toast and “whole wheat” Eggo waffles contained significantly more white flour than wheat. Some companies even go so far as add artificial caramel coloring to make the "whole-grain" items appear healthier even though they use mostly white flour.
The term “multi-grain” is also intentionally misleading—all it means is that a product contains more than one type of grain, not that any of the grains inside are actually good for you. Take sugary Trix cereal, which features an image of wheat right on the front of the box and says that it holds “more whole grain than any other ingredient.” The only whole grain inside the dessert-like “breakfast” food is whole-grain corn, which has little nutritional value.
What you can do: Check the ingredient list. A product that contains healthy grains should list “whole-wheat flour” or another healthy whole grain as one of its first ingredients (and definitely before white flour). Consumers should also be wary of serving sizes. A food package may boast “8 grams of whole grains per serving,” but that amount may be only a very small percentage of the actual serving size.
Just like “whole grain” and “whole wheat,” the FDA fails to define what specifications foods must meet in order to be labeled “natural” or “all-natural.” In fact, the agency has no objections to any food item showcasing an “all-natural” label so long as it doesn’t contain “artificial flavors or synthetic substances.” As food labeling expert and Consumers Union staff member Urvashi Rangan recently told CBS News, “the natural claim is one of the most vague and misleading green claims that we see out on the marketplace.”
The proof is in the pudding—and the cereal, ice cream, beverages, and other processed foods that claim to be “natural.” At a recent trip to the grocery store, I found sundry items touting “natural” ingredients that weren’t so natural: Swiss Premium Natural Tea Cooler, an iced tea drink, contains maltodextrin and “instant tea.” Breyer’s Smooth and Creamy Natural Light ice cream features corn syrup on its ingredient list, as does Gorton’s All Natural Grilled Fillets of frozen fish. Even Tyson’s Crispy Chicken Strips claim to be “all-natural.”
What you can do: Again, read the ingredient list. If an item is unfamiliar, look it up first. And trust your instincts. If a food item looks heavily processed and reads like it’s heavily processed, don’t believe there’s anything “natural” about it.
Food safety and animal welfare advocates purchase “cage-free” eggs to ensure that laying hens weren’t kept in battery cages, cruel enclosures so small that birds can’t even stretch their wings. Most consumers think that cage-free eggs come from happy hens pecking and clucking in the sunshine. In reality, not all “humane” eggs are created equal.
While “cage-free” or “free-range” eggs do come from hens kept outside of battery cages, these birds don’t necessarily have any access to the outdoors. They may spend their entire lives crowded inside warehouses, barns, and other large enclosures. By U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, hens that lay certified organic eggs must be given access to the outdoors. But even for this more-stringent label, there are no specifications on time and duration of outdoor access. Some “organic” producers might get their birds outside once or twice in the animals’ lives. It’s a misleading practice that goes against everything that “cage-free” and “organic” ideals were created to represent.
What you can do: Look for an “Animal Welfare Approved” label, which requires third-party certification to ensure that birds are cage-free and have continuous outdoor perching access. You can also check out the Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Egg Scorecard. While some certified organic egg producers aren’t living up to their labels, others are doing an admirable job of ensuring that birds are happy, safe, and treated humanely.