Food Labels Try to Deceive You

Learn to separate the reliable, independently verified labels from marketing hype. With the economy still keeping our wallets clamped shut, no one wants to feel duped at the checkout counter. Yet savvy food marketers have managed to tap into all our concerns over food safety and purity, labeling their products with words in phrases that, at best, don’t even apply to a given product category, and at worst, are illegal.
Here are five of the most common misleading food-labeling terms, and how you can outsmart the marketers:

1. “No added growth hormones.”
You’ll see this claim in ads for chicken, turkey, or even pork, as well as on milk and beef labels. One major reason it’s misleading is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn’t allow farmers to feed hormones to poultry or pork—so there’s no particular reason to choose products that are so labeled. In fact, if you read the fine print, any poultry or pork product that is advertised as “hormone free” must legally be accompanied by the disclaimer “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” That doesn’t make the products particularly healthy, though, since producers of those meats do use antibiotics to speed animal growth. The USDA calls this “increasing feed efficiency.” And even when you see this label on beef or dairy products, it hasn’t been verified by a third party.
To get the real thing: Buy certified organic meat, dairy, and poultry, which are free of both added growth hormones and antibiotics. Or buy from small farmers whom you can ask about how they raise and medicate their animals.

2. “Natural”
The implications of this label can make anyone feel good about their farm-fresh, straight-from-the-dirt…can of lemonade. Unfortunately, there isn’t any official definition of “natural.” Except when it comes to meat: The USDA has defined it as any product “containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product).” But that definition doesn’t address whether or not the animals were in raised in confinement and given hormones or antibiotics. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates fruits, vegetables, and most processed foods, doesn’t have any official definition for the term “natural.” So essentially, any food product can claim to be as “natural” as the manufacturer would like you to believe.
To get the real thing: Again, buying organic is your best protection. And in general, buy more fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and unprocessed food as you can. The fewer ingredients involved, the less you have to worry about them being artificial.

3. “Grass-fed”
Most people assume “grass-fed” means that animals graze in a pasture and eat, well, grass. But in 2006, the USDA changed their definition so that that it became legal to label beef “grass-fed” even if the cattle were confined to a feedlot and never saw the light of day—as long as they ate grass. A year later, the agency created a certification program that clarified their definition, including added requirements that animals be allowed access to pasture. But any product sold as grass-fed before the certification program was instituted is still allowed to advertise itself as “grass-fed.” Finally, the new certification doesn’t include standards for dairy, poultry, or pork—so grass-fed claims on those products are fairly meaningless.
To get the real thing: Look for certified grass-fed beef or lamb with the “USDA Process Verified” shield, along with the claim “U.S. Grass-fed,” to make sure you’re getting honest-to-goodness grass-fed meat. But keep in mind that grass-fed certification still allows the use of hormones and antibiotics, so going organic is the best way to encompass all three criteria.

4. “Antibiotic free”
Like “no added hormones,” “antibiotic free” is a meaningless term—one that’s illegal to use on products, according to the USDA. Manufacturers often skirt the issue by using phrases like “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics administered”; no inspections or verifications are required. Furthermore, some meat producers use those phrases while dousing animals with antimicrobials, drugs that work identically to antibiotics, but are defined differently by the FDA. Complicating the matter is the fact that not all use of antibiotics is a bad thing. Operators of concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) may overuse them to fatten up chickens and hogs faster, but small farmers save antibiotics for when animals get sick, which is the way they should be used.
To get the real thing: Buy organic. Under organic regulations, any animal treated with antibiotics must be removed from organic production, so purchasing organic meat and dairy is the only way to truly avoid them. Or find a local farmer who uses antibiotics on his or her animals responsibly.

5. Nutrition info
It’s difficult enough skirting marketing claims, but what can really get frustrating is when you realize that the government-mandated nutrition label on that box of crackers you’re holding may not be telling you the whole truth. The two things to pay attention to on packaged foods are the serving size and the trans fat listing, says Jayne Hurley, RD, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Serving sizes are mandated by the FDA,” she says; they aren’t defined by food companies, as most people assume. The trouble is that serving sizes were defined in the ’70s, based on individuals’ self-reported food consumption habits in FDA interviews, which are often underestimated, says Hurley, and don’t reflect the consumption habits of people today. “Look at a soup can with 2.5 servings,” she says. “Who’s going to divide that can into 2.5 servings?” Unless you’re willing to do the math, she adds, the nutrition information doesn’t reflect what you’re eating.
Another sticky label is the trans fat listing. The FDA allows manufacturers to put “0” if the amount of trans fats per serving is below .5 grams. “That’s a quarter of a day’s worth,” says Hurley, who notes that 2 grams is what health experts suggest is the maximum. “And the manufacturers aren’t breaking the law. It’s perfectly legal.”
To get the real thing: Do a reality check on the serving sizes of the foods you buy: Are you likely to eat all three servings in a single sitting? If needed, bring a calculator (or use the one on your cellphone) to add up how many calories, fat, salt, and so forth, you’re really getting. And read ingredient labels, not nutrition labels, to avoid trans fats. Avoid any product with partially hydrogenated oils listed as an ingredient. “If there’s no partially hydrogenated oil, the trans fat content really is zero.”