False advertising on food packages in the U.S. seems to now be status quo. For example, nearly all bread that’s labeled “whole wheat bread” contains far more refined flour than actual whole grain flour. While that’s not a lie, I think it’s awfully deceptive. But what *really* gets my goat is when food producers have the nerve to print blatant lies on their labels – and with the backing of the US government. Here are the lies that bother me most:
- The term “free range” chickens or eggs. Wikipedia has a good description of what the USDA allows food producers to mean when using this term. Unlike the rest of the world, where free-range means that the animal freely ranges on a field or pasture, in the US, it merely means that the animal has access to the outdoors. That usually means something like a trap door to a tiny concrete courtyard, which most chickens opt never to use. The Cornucopia Institute did a fantastic investigative report on organic eggs that goes into great detail on what they found when visiting farms. They also maintain a scorecard where you can look up their findings on nearly 100 farms, including those of well-known brands like Organic Valley, 365 Organic, Horizon Organic, Trader Joe’s and Kirkland Signature. But beware, the larger the producer, the less likely they were to answer the survey questions. Who wants to eat eggs from farms that keep their production methods a secret? After all, what’s so complex about raising hens? Nothing, unless you have something to hide.
- The claim “contains no trans fats.” The other day I visited a new high-end burger joint that claims to use all grass-fed beef in their burgers. They asked me if I wanted fries with my order. I asked what kind of fat they fry them in. I was hoping for grass-fed beef fat. To my dismay, the clerk showed me a box of Crisco. I guess that was to be expected. But what really surprised me was that the Crisco box said it contained “O GRAMS TRANS FAT.” What!?!? I always thought that Crisco was the mother of all trans fats – after all, isn’t it 100% hydrogenated vegetable oil? I looked it up and learned two things. First is that Crisco’s new formula is not only hydrogenated oil. Yes, it contains fully hydrogenated cottonseed, partially hydrogenated cottonseed and partially hydrogenated soybean oils, but it also contains non-hydrogenated soybean oil. The second thing is that regulations allow food producers to label foods as having ZERO trans fats if they contain less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving. I’m making a wild guess here, but Proctor and Gamble’s chemists probably figured out a way to pump even more hydrogen atoms into those 0.5 grams of hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oils so that, when mixed with the soybean oil, produces a similarly solid, yet spreadable end product. Nevertheless, the label, although compliant with US law, is still an outright lie.
- Phrases like “all natural” or “natural and organic.” There are no US regulations of “natural” labeling of foods, so companies individually determine their own standards for what “natural” means. Does anyone really consider a food that’s been processed in an industrial factory to be “all natural?” This topic was investigated by the Cornucopia Institute’s report, entitled Cereal Crimes: How “Natural” Claims Deceive Consumers and Undermine the Organic Label. While the investigation focuses on cereal, I’m sure that all packaged foods are treated similarly. One marketing trick that was highlighted in the report is where food producers wait until they’ve built up a loyal following around an Organic label, such as Peace Cereal, and then later switch to non-organic ingredients. The “Certified Organic” seal on their packaging sneakily gets replaced by “All Natural,” but other than that, the packaging looks exactly the same. The “natural and organic” phrase is especially innovative, although not necessarily an outright lie – just very deceptive. Apparently the “and” means that the product is a mix of primarily “natural” ingredients (which means absolutely nothing), but has the addition of at least a little bit of “organic” ingredients, although there’s no indication of what percentage this represents.
- The ingredient “natural flavor.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a picture in my head of how “natural flavors” are derived. For instance, I imagined natural orange flavoring came from collecting the oil you get when you squeeze orange zest. Once I read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, I learned that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The government definition of “natural flavoring” is broad and can mean something that is derived from a natural source but has gone through a lot of processing, and thus is no longer natural. In the book, Schlosser shares what he learned from touring International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), one of the largest producers of natural and artificial flavors. You can read the details in his book, but the conclusion is that “Natural flavors and artificial flavors sometimes contain exactly the same chemicals, produced through different methods… A natural flavor is not necessarily more healthful or purer than an artificial one.”
- Almost all pictures on food packages, such as those showing beautiful pastures or cute milkmaids or happy grazing animals. The movie Food, Inc. and Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, taught us that these pictures are nowhere near accurate representations of how or where the foods they contain are actually produced. We recently heard about a similar scam related to blueberries, where cereals, bread, and muffins packages would show images of plump, ripe blueberries on their packages. Investigators later found that the “blueberry-bits” pictured and contained in these products contained no blueberry at all.
- “Raw” almonds. Following two salmonella outbreaks linked to almonds in 2001 and 2004, the USDA passed a law in 2007 mandating that all almonds sold in the U.S. be pasteurized. Yet the government allows almond producers to still label these pasteurized almonds as “raw.” Here’s a good article that discusses some of the possible political motivations behind this. The “raw” claim is a lie because foods can’t be both raw and pasteurized at the same time.
- “Black Forest Ham” and use of other Protected Designations of Origin (PDO). I see ham that says “Black Forest” on the label everywhere, but I’m yet to find anything in the US that even comes close to resembling actual Black Forest Ham. Other examples include the use of the terms like Parmesan, Champagne, Neapolitan pizza, Munster and Neufchatel cheeses. Most of the products in the US that bear these terms on the label would not be permitted to be labeled as such in Europe. That is because the Europeans believe in protecting “the reputation of the regional foods, promoting rural and agricultural activity, helping producers obtain a premium price for their authentic products, and eliminating the unfair competition and misleading of consumers by non-genuine products,which may be of inferior quality or of different flavour.” Why is this not important in the U.S.?
I’m curious what other deceptive or false food labels irk you…