The Shocking Truth About What Food Label Claims Really Mean
Written by: Liz Brown - Mar. 27, 2018
Have you ever been influenced to purchase (or avoid purchasing) a certain product at the grocery store simply because of the food label claims, like a health claim or nutrient content claim listed on the packaging? (Like “All-Natural”, “Cage-Free”, “Organic”, etc.) I know I have, especially when I am actively trying to clean up my diet or just eat healthier in general.
What’s interesting though, is that you might not even realize that you are influenced by these labels at all! It turns out, a cognitive bias called “The Halo Effect”, or in this case, a “Health Halo Effect”, influences your overall impression of a food product. More specifically, how you think and feel about it’s nutritional value. This health halo subconsciously convinces you to purchase a product you might believe is healthier, when in fact, might not be healthy at all.
It would appear that the main objective for any company to make these types of claims on their food packaging is to inform consumers of how their products are grown, raised, or handled, right? Well, the food industry has an ulterior motive they don’t want you to know about…
What The Food Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know About Food Label Claims
In the United States, health claims on food labels help the food industry sell over $377 billion worth of food items every year. Just by placing the claim “Natural” on a product helps them sell over $40 billion worth of food alone! With that in mind, there are hundreds of different claims that a company can put on their products all with the hope thattheir product is first on your shopping list.
The only problem is that not all nutritional claims are created equal, and the food industry knows it. By placing a nutrient content claim, structure/function claim, or a health claim on a product the manufacturers are banking on the fact that the health halo will help influence your decision to buy their product over their competitor’s product.
There are hundreds of different food label claims that a manufacturer can use on their label… do you know what they actually mean? And do you know if what you’re buying is actually healthy for you?
Types Of Food Label Claims On Packaging
There are three categories of claims that can be regulated on food packaging: health claims, nutrient content claims, and structure/function claims.
A health claim is a statement about a particular food and it’s health benefits. This claim is supported by scientific evidence, but does not meet in-depth scientific standards. Misleading language is not allowed when making these claims. For example, a food manufacturer can make a health claim that states “Diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure, a disease associated with many factors”.
Nutrient Content Claims
A nutrient content claim is a guide to help you consume more or less of a certain nutrient. They must be true and accurate just like health claims. An example of a nutrient content claim is a food label that says “low in fat” or “good source of calcium”.
A structure/function claim describes the role of a nutrient and how it can affect your health from a structural standpoint, for example, “calcium builds strong bones.”
Who Regulates These Food Label Claims?
Now, think back to a few of those claims– “All-Natural”, “Cage-Free”, “Organic”. It’s very likely that when you’re shopping you never think twice about questioning their validity or actual meaning. Many words or phrases used on food and beverage labels are federally regulated, but it may be unclear what they mean exactly. On top of that, some are unregulated, have no standard definition, and come with no guarantee at all.
In terms of regulation, there are three major agencies that oversee food and beverage labeling: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). (For the purpose of this article we will only focus on front-of-package labeling, not the nutrition facts panel on the backside of the packaging).
Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Regulates how most food (exception: meat, poultry, and egg products) is processed, packaged, and labeled.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Develops labeling guidance and inspection/enforcement actions for meat, poultry, and egg products. Also contains the National Organic program which manages the production guidance, definitions, and labeling for organic foods.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
Responsible for regulating and enforcing policy on food advertising, to include package claims.
Please keep in mind that all of these standards, definitions, regulations, and enforcement actions are designed to protect you, the consumer. But it’s quite often that companies use certain words or phrases as a marketing technique to influence your spending power, when in actuality they mean very little or are completely false.
What Do These Food Label Claims Actually Mean?
Organic vs Natural
LOOSELY REGULATED. This term is only recognized by the USDA on meat, poultry, and egg products. By definition, products that use “Natural” on their label must be “minimally processed in a manner that does not alter the product.” The label must explain the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients”, “minimally processed”, etc.). Using this term on any other type of product other than meat, poultry, and eggs has no formal definition and can be suspect for investigation.
REGULATED. This can be used to label any product that contains a minimum of 95% organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Up to 5% of the ingredients may be non-organic agricultural products that are not commercially available as organic and/or non-agricultural products. The USDA is the only organization that has the power to certify a product as Organic. If you see a label that is labeled Organic, but not contain the USDA Organic label, it may be organic by definition, but has not been approved by the USDA.
Made With Organic _____
REGULATED. This can be used to label a product that contains at least 70% organically produced ingredients (excluding salt and water). For example, an item that claims “Made with Organic Corn” means that all raw and processed corn-based ingredients—such as blue corn, corn oil, and corn starch—must be certified organic with a USDA label.
Red Meat Labels
LOOSELY REGULATED. This term indicated that an animal consumed grass for nutrients the majority of the time (grains may be used to supplement the diet). This term is not synonymous with the term “organic” and still allows the use for hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides. Only items that are labeled “Grass-Fed Organic” can ensure that no hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides were used. Producers can make a “grass-fed” claim after submitting a one-time label application with the USDA, with required documentation to support that the “grass-fed” claim means the animals were not given any grain. However, there is no requirement for on-farm inspections and no requirement for annual review or auditing of the producer’s records to ensure compliance.
LOOSELY REGULATED. This claim can only be used for live animal production. The three core factors include, “no growth hormones were administered, no antibiotics (other than ionophores used to prevent parasitism) were administered, and no animal by-products were fed to the animals.” The term “Naturally Raised” is not currently allowed to be on meat and poultry labels because it can be confused with the Natural claim.
UNREGULATED. This means that animals spent at least some time outdoors on pasture, feeding on grass or forage. There is no standard definition or guarantee with this claim.
UNREGULATED. There is no standard definition or guarantee with this claim
REGULATED. “Free range” labels are regulated by the USDA only for poultry produced for meat – it’s not regulated for pigs, cattle or egg-producing chickens. Nor are the requirements very high: poultry can use the label if the chicken had any access to the outdoors each day for some unspecified period of time; it could be just a few minutes, and does not assure that the animal ever actually went outdoors to roam freely.
REGULATE, SOMEWHAT. Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
REGULATED. “Fresh” means whole poultry and cuts have never been below 26 °F (the temperature at which poultry freezes). This is consistent with consumer expectations of “fresh” poultry, i.e., not hard to the touch or frozen solid.
REGULATED. This USDA term means the flock roamed freely within an enclosed shelter while having unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle. This does not mean they had access to the outdoors, only that they weren’t in cages. So they may still be tightly packed into an enclosed area, just no cage. To be cage-free, there must be a minimum of one square foot of space per bird!
REGULATED. This USDA term indicates the flock was given shelter and had unlimited access to food, fresh water, and the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may still be fenced or covered with netting but does not indicated how long they were left outside. To be free-range, there must be a minimum of two square feet of outdoor space per bird.
Although there is no food label for brown eggs, brown eggs have a cultivated reputation for being a healthier, natural choice. Egg shell color is simply determined by the breed of chicken that laid it.
FUN FACT: Free-Range hens are least likely to produce contaminated eggs as their laying environment is the healthiest. These eggs also have significantly increased levels of Vitamins A and E, and Omega 3 Fatty Acids, when compared to battery-farmed eggs.
LOOSELY REGULATED. Breads with the multigrain claim include more than one grain but does not mean that it is more nutritious than other alternatives or that whole grains were used.
LOOSELY REGULATED: The product was, in part, made with whole wheat flour. Products that use this label will typically use a blend of different types of flour. If it were 100% whole wheat, the manufacturer would put it on the label.
100% Whole Grain
LOOSELY REGULATED. 100% Whole Grain means that all parts of the grain kernel — the bran, germ and endosperm — are used.
TIP: A sign of healthier breads is if whole grain is the first ingredient. Look for a product where the ingredient list is short and doesn’t contain chemicals.
Snack Food Labels:
REGULATED. Light means that the product contains ⅓ fewer calories, 50% less fat, or 50% less sodium than the original version of the product.
REGULATED. Reduced-fat products indicates that a product has at least 25% less fat than the original version of the product.
REGULATED. Low fat means that the product has 3 grams or less of fat per serving.
FUN FACT: To preserve flavor and texture, manufacturers often pump up other bad-for-you ingredients when they skimp out on one. For instance, an item labeled “fat-free” might contain added sugars often hidden within the ingredient label.
Other Important Labels
When a manufacturer chooses to put “gluten-free” on food packaging, the item must comply with the new FDA definition of the term – less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. Manufacturers may also place the “gluten-free” label on foods that are naturally gluten free.
Expiry Date Labels
This date is the last day that a manufacturer can guarantee the quality of the product. This is not a date of spoilage and nor does it indicate that the food is unsafe to eat.
This date is designed to inform the consumer when the manufacturer sees a product at its most fresh. This does not indicate the date by which you should purchase a product or if it safe to eat.
This date is intended to help manufacturers and retailers but not consumers. Consumers, however, often let this term influence their buying decisions.
FUN FACT: A study conducted by the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) revealed that Americans trash up to 40% of our food supply every year due to confusion over expiration dates on food packaging. This is equivalent to $165 billion worth of food per year.
How To Combat Misleading Food Label Claims
Keep in mind there are hundreds of different claims that food manufacturers can use on their food packaging and will continue to use them in their marketing efforts. It’s important to arm yourself with even the most basic and most common claims along with their meaning in order make the healthiest decisions possible. Although these types of claims are made on the front side of the packaging, it’s important to review the nutrition panel on the backside of the packaging for further review.
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