March 6, 2003

The Labels Lie!
by Phil Kaplan

We 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 of reasons:

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 and Order.

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!

As 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 FREE

There 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 can be.

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


If 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 fat!"


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 answer.


As 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 products!


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 plan.

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