Food Label Con Game

Food labels are required by law for most packaged food. They provide the familiar nutrition facts (serving sizes, nutrient content), various descriptors, a list of ingredients starting with the most prominent by weight and sometimes FDA-approved health claims. Although they’re supposed to enable consumers to make healthy choices, manufacturers often turn the information into a legal con game. Consumers therefore need to learn how to detect misrepresentations by Big Food in order to make informed decisions.

One popular con is the vanishing serving size. Manufacturers sometimes manipulate serving sizes by suggesting unreasonably small servings to reduce the apparent amount of unhealthful ingredients such as added sugars and trans-fats. A box of cookies might, for example, indicate that one serving equals half a cookie.

imageAlso popular is the rounding con, often used in conjunction with the vanishing serving size, to falsely indicate that a product is free of trans-fats. We’re all familiar with the evil trans-fat: A synthetic hydrocarbon often erroneously equated with saturated fat, and now known to be sugar’s partner in crime behind heart disease. The FDA allows the number of grams of an ingredient to be rounded up or down to the nearest whole number. For trans-fats, manufacturers use the vanishing serving size to round down fewer than 0.5 grams per serving to zero. Thus, the claim “trans-fat free” or reporting zero grams on the nutrition facts label, is permitted on foods that have less than half a gram per serving. Instead, check the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated oil.

Manufacturers also like to play “hide the sugars.” Added sugars have no nutritional value and can harm health. They go by many names such as sucrose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, evaporated cane sugar, Florida crystals, agave syrup or honey, allowing Big Food to use smaller quantities of different sugars so they can appear separately in the ingredient list. If you don’t recognize Florida crystals and the others as sugars, it won’t be obvious. Again, you should check the nutrition facts label for “sugars.”

Big Food also likes the association con. “Multi-grain” has a connotation of being healthful, but the first ingredient is usually wheat flour, which is simply refined white flour. It is indeed a grain, just not a whole one. Look for 100 percent whole grain instead. A comparable trick is for the label to state, “made with whole wheat.” It generally means that the product is mostly refined white flour with a little whole wheat added. Again, check the ingredient list.

Here’s a surprising variation of the association con. The term “not from concentrate” on the container of your favorite orange juice would seem to indicate that the product is fresh squeezed, right?
Well, have you ever noticed that every container of juice tastes the same?

The manufacturer accomplishes this by stripping the juice of oxygen, which also removes flavor, for long-term storage in big vats. At the time of packaging, chemically manipulated flavor packs are added to the liquid. This makes a mockery of the term “all natural,” but it is legal at this time.

The best way to avoid Big Food’s con game is to prepare your own meals whenever possible using fresh, organic and whole food ingredients. Most of the products found in supermarkets should not really be considered food at all, but Frankenfood!


• Front Label Logos: For example the American Heart Association’s endorsement that a food supports cardiovascular health. These claims are based on outdated science and usually disguise undesirable ingredients, like sugar.

• The Low Fat Bait and Switch: There is no real evidence that reducing dietary fat is better for you and the fat is generally replaced with sugar and thickeners. They also have little satiety value.

• Natural Flavoring: Usually covers up the hidden MSG in the ingredient list in the form of autolyzed yeast extract or hydrolyzed soy protein.

• Artificial Sweeteners: Such as sucralose (Splenda) and Acesulfame-K hiding in foods such as cereals.