March 6, 2003
The Labels Lie!
by Phil Kaplan
want to eat healthfully. We try to eat healthfully.
Unfortunately, most of us fail to eat healthfully for
any significant period of time. Why is healthy eating so elusive
for most people?
There are a number
1. Based on the voluminous explosion
of misinformation, most people are confused as to what "eating
right" really means.
2. Americans consume far too
much sugar which drives insulin production haywire and leads
to cravings for sugar.
3. Calorie deprivation causes
the body to send out little chemicals that interact with
the chemicals in your brain to drive you to that nutrient
that we can actually survive off of the longest . . fat.
4. Even with a full understanding
of "eating right," even with controlled sugar intake, and
even with adequate calorie ingestion, a challenge remains.
That challenge is in deciphering food labels. The mystery
of "what's in the package" is often more difficult to solve
than the case being pursued on the latest episode of Law
In this article I'll
share some of the common mislabeling tactics the food companies
use to sell products. Some of these may shock you. You'll
ask the question, "how can they get away with that?" The answer
lies in the fact that the FDA is funded primarily by the food
and drug companies, and they leave loopholes in the labeling
laws that allow the food companies to legally lie. Here are
a few examples.
It would be really
nice if we could be certain a food labeled "fat free" is actually
void of fat. Unfortunately, some fat-free labeled foods may
be 50%, 60%, or in some cases 100% fat and they say "fat-free"
on the label!
an example, examine a can of "fat-free" cooking spray. It
usually says on the front of the container, "for calorie free
and fat free cooking." If you turn the can around and examine
the FDA regulated nutrition label, you'd find that there are
zero calories per serving, zero calories from fat. The question
becomes, if there aren't any calories . . . what in the world
is in that can? That's when you look at that tiny print on
the ingredients panel. You'll find that the only significant
ingredient in that can is vegetable oil, corn oil, or canola
oil, foods that get 100% of their calories from fat! Yes,
the fat free cooking spray is 100% fat!
Here's how they get
away with it. The law says, "if there's less than half a gram
(.5 g) of fat in a serving (remember those words, "in a serving")
a food can be labeled fat free. The catch is, nobody regulates
what the food companies refer to as a serving size. If you
go back to the tiny print on that spray can, you'll find that
a serving is equal to two-tenths (2/10) of a gram. Is there
less than half a gram of fat in a serving? Of course. There's
less than half a gram of anything in a serving that's .2 grams
in its entirety. This loophole allows the cooking sprays,
pure fat, to be labeled fat free.
The same is true of
the fat free butter spreads, the fat free butter substitutes,
and the fat free liquid butter for popcorn.
2% FAT or 98% FAT
are many labels that boast of low fat percentages on their
front panels. It's common to see meats and dairy products
labeled "98% fat free," or "only 2% fat."
Let's use milk as an example. If 2% milk gets 2% of its calories
from fat, that would suggest that 98% of the calories are
from other nutrients. Pick up any container of 2% milk and
turn it around. The nutrient amounts may astound you. You'll
find that 35% of the calories actually come from fat. How
do they get to label a food as 98% fat free when 35% of the
calories are from fat? They use yet another loophole.
The food companies
are allowed to report nutrient percentages based on total
volume. In other words, if you see a package that says 98%
fat free, that means that 2% of the entirety of a serving
would be fat, but that doesn't translate to percentage of
calories. Because milk is predominantly water, and water doesn't
have any calories, they are telling you that 2% of the contents
including the primary ingredient water is fat . . . but you're
concerned with the calories! If you look at "calories per
serving," and "calories from fat," you'll be able to do some
quick division and find out how misleading the reported percentages
Now that you understand
how the labels deceive, you'll see how the following requirements
can be toyed with to deceive people into believing a food
is healthier than promised.
If a food has less
than 40 calories "in a serving," it can be called "Low-Calorie."
Anyone can manipulate a serving size so it contains fewer
than 40 calories
a food has 25% or more fewer calories than a comparable product,
it can be labeled "reduced calorie." Compare a fatty
food to a super fatty food and you can call it "reduced calorie,"
even if the caloric contact is excessively high.
If a food has 25%
or more fewer grams of fat than a comparable product, it can
be labeled "reduced fat." Check out the Reduced Fat Peanut
butters. While they have fewer fat grams than the regular
peanut butters, they are still a high fat food! Labeled "reduced
If a food has 25%
or more fewer grams of sugar
than a comparable product, it can be called "reduced sugar."
If a food has 5 calories
or less "per serving," it can be labeled calorie free. You
can see how some marketing creativity can get around the laws
that are supposedly to protect the consumers and provide truth
in labeling. The pure fat butter substitutes can clearly boast
"Calorie Free" on their labels if the serving sizes
are small enough.
Some foods are labeled
sugar free although they have as much sugar as a chocolate
chip cookie. They sometimes fail to include the actual word
sugar on the ingredient list but instead refer to the specific
sugars, glucose, fructose, corn syrup, sweetened condensed
milk, dextrose, etc. These ingredients all indicate the presence
of sugar, even if a food is labeled sugar free. There's a
popular cookie being sold that says right on the front label,
"Sugar FREE, Sweetened with fructose." That means "sugar
free sweetened with sugar." Then there are the sugar
alcohols such as sorbitol, malitol, and glycerol which by
law do not have to be listed as sugars on the nutrient panel.
A snack bar might say "Sugar Free" and list glycerol (or glycerine)
on its ingredient panel. Sugar alcohols do affect blood sugar
and can spike insulin levels limiting fat release and leading
to greater accumulation of bodyfat. They do have fewer calories
than regular sugars, but they are not as sweet, so in order
to sweeten a food with a sugar alcohol, you have to use more
than you would sugar. The catch here is, the FDA hasn't categorized
sugar alcohols as sugar which is why a label panel might say
26 grams of Carbohydrates, only 4 grams of sugar. You have
to wonder where the other 22 grams of carbohydrates came from?
If you find sugar alcohols in the ingredients, you have your
you stroll down the supermarket shelves, you'll find pastas,
vegetable oils, and rice labeled "No Cholesterol." That sounds
good and creates a perception that a given food is somehow
healthier than the brand sitting next to it on the shelf.
Here's the interesting part. Pastas, vegetable oils, and rice
never contain cholesterol. Cholesterol is found in animal
NO ADDED HORMONES
Milk cartons will
sometimes put the words "no added hormones" on their front
panel. Of course this implies that other cartons of milk do
have added hormones and the "hormone free" version would be
a better choice. Guess what. No milk has added hormones! Dairy
producers don't add hormones to the milk, but it has become
common practice to inject bovine growth hormone into the cows
that produce the milk. A hormone treated cow can produce milk
that shows up on your supermarket shelf saying "no added hormones."
I can keep going.
We can cover "No MSG," "Organically grown," "Lean," and other
words that serve as a lure for unknowing consumers, but by
now I think you get the picture. Food labels cannot be trusted!
Here are a few final
food facts that might prove surprising:
- Aunt Jemima's Frozen Blueberry
waffles don't contain any blueberries at all! The bluish
things are dried apple parts treated with food dye.
- Quaker Instant Oatmeal Fruit
and Cream Variety comes in strawberry and blueberry
flavors. The strawberry version doesn't contain any strawberries,
the blueberry version doesn't contain any blueberries.
- Betty Crocker Stir & Bake
carrot cake . . . doesn't contain even a shred of carrot.
It is so much simpler
for the food companies to deceive us than it is for the consumers
to find the truth. With this basic understanding of the labeling
laws, and the common practices of food marketers, you should
find yourself empowered to make better choices. Your best
bet is to stick to the perimeter of the supermarket for most
of your shopping, or to buy your meats and produce in a natural
market. As you become a label detective you'll find it far
simpler to make healthful choices and stick to a healthy eating
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