Naturally Misleading: Whats Behind Food and Beverage Labels

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What you see isn’t always what you get. What a disappointment right? But that doesn’t stop the food industry from promoting their products as “all-natural”, “whole grain” or “made with real fruit.”

We live in a labeled world and the food marketers are very good at doing their job. Words like “heart healthy”, “no sugar added”, “light”, “reduced fat”, “wholesome”, and “pure” are strategically placed on labels. The truth of this backward situation is that consumers are being deceived. Most consumers want to believe that food manufacturers have their best interest in mind and this is far from the reality of the situation.

NATURAL OR ALL NATURAL

This is a label that we see quite often and doesn’t live up to its definition. The USDA loosely defines natural as “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product (1).”

Let’s highlight some key words: no artificial ingredients, no added color, & minimally processed. There are so many “natural” labeled food items out there that contain genetically altered ingredients, hormones, and toxic chemicals. Even though corn oil or soybean oil may boast the label “all natural”, we need to remember that 93% of soybean and 85% of corn in 2010 was from genetically engineered crops (2).

How dare the food industry label chips, soda, fruit snacks, and oven ready meals “natural”? The reality of the situation is that they are highly processed foods and we are consumers need to be aware of what’s hiding in our food.

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WHOLE GRAIN STAMP

This stamp on many products has become a widely recognized “healthy” food label. The purpose of this stamp is to make the consumer aware of how many grams of whole grains are in a serving of a particular product (3). While this is an excellent way of making sure you are getting whole grains into your diet, you still need to be aware of what else is in the box.

Let’s take a look at Quaker Oatmeal Squares with Brown Sugar, which bears the whole grain stamp. The first two ingredients are whole grain, but then things quickly go downhill fast. Let’s take an inside look!

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BLUE - ADDED SUGARS/SWEETENERS

Why on earth would there need to be 5 different types of sugars added to this cereal? To make it taste good!

GREEN - NATURAL FLAVOR

What exactly does this mean? According to the Code of Federal Regulations from the FDA, natural flavor is: “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional (4).” Whoa! That is a mouthful of words. Does the normal consumer even understand what hydrolysate or enzymolysis means?

YELLOW – BHT, A PRESERVATIVE THAT IS ADDED TO FOOD TO PREVENT SPOILAGE Even though BHT is an FDA approved food ingredient, much compelling research has shown that it may have a carcinogenic effect. If General Mills has removed that from it cereals (5), maybe that’s a hint.

RED - YELLOW 5 & 6, FOOD DYES

These two dyes have quite the controversial image. To test the effects of these food dyes, British researchers designed a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, crossover trial to test whether intake of artificial food color affected childhood behavior (6). The results: increased hyperactivity in children. Even though these food dyes are on the FDA’s list of approved use, it’s pretty scary that the UK government requires that food companies label products containing Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 with a warning that says: “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children (7).” Just another reason to make you think twice.

MADE WITH REAL FRUIT

I’m pretty sure we all know what real fruit looks like, but the only way we can tell if there is fruit in a food product is by the ingredients, right? It’s easy for consumers to choose a food product because it claims to be “made with real fruit” but let’s actually look at the ingredients to see if it matches the claim.

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The amount of ingredients in this product is very overwhelming not to mention that half of the ingredients are difficult for most to pronounce.

BLUE – ADDED SUGARS/SWEETENERS

There are 6 sweeteners in crust and filling combined. Raise red flag #1.

GREEN - NATURAL & ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS

As if the natural flavor definition stated above wasn’t tricky enough, we now have the addition of artificial flavors into this food product.

YELLOW – CARRAGEENAN, FOOD ADDITIVE USED TO THICKEN

This ingredient has recently received much negative attention for its link to inflammatory and digestive issues (8). Yuck, that’s bad news. Wait a second here, have you seen any fruit?

OH, THERE IT IS UNDERLINED IN RED – APPLE PUREE CONCENTRATE

Anyone could have missed that all the way near the bottom! Can this processed fruit puree really be considered real fruit and deserve to bear the label on the front of the package claiming, “made with real fruit?” The truth is that apple puree concentrate is processed, so this is where things get a bit hairy. You’d think you were eating an entire serving of fruit with that type of label. The food marketers have duped us once again.

STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS

These are just a few examples about our misleading relationship with many food products. It is very important for us to be aware that the majority of products on the shelves are just that – food products and not real food. Here are some tips to help you navigate the grocery store successfully.

1. BUY WHOLE FOODS – PREFERABLY ORGANIC AND LOCAL

Instead of a product saying it contains an apple, actually buy the apple. Try to buy as much organic, local, and in-season produce as possible. Not only will you be saving some dough you will also be supporting the local farmers and avoiding any nasty GMO and chemicals/pesticides that your body doesn’t need.

2. SHOP THE PERIMETER OF THE STORE

This is where the majority of the healthy food lies. Fresh produce, lean protein, and health dairy/non-dairy options can easily be found here. The only time you will have to venture down the middle aisles would be to get spices/seasonings, legumes, healthy grains, and maybe some toilet paper.

3. READ THE LABELS

As you begin to take an interest as to what is really in your food, make sure to read the ingredients before you buy. Familiarize yourself with any unknowns and learn to read through the health marketing strategies that make consumers buy without investigating further.

4. IF YOU CAN’T PRONOUNCE IT (OR KNOW WHAT IT IS), DON’T BUY IT

Chances are pretty good that at some point you will be faced with buying a packaged product. Don’t let this overwhelm you by being prepared to flip over the package and read what’s inside. If there is a long list of ingredients and you cannot pronounce the majority of them, do not buy it. A good rule for buying food products are 5 ingredients or less. If there are more, carefully consider and make the smartest decision. Sometimes less is actually more!

References

(1) http://www.redarrowusa.com/_uploads/resources/USDA_Natural_Definition_Statement.pdf (2) http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1282246/err162.pdf (3) http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grain-stamp (4) https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=101.22 (5) http://cen.acs.org/articles/93/i8/General-Mills-Remove-Antioxidant-BHT.html (6) http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140673607613063/abstract (7) https://www.food.gov.uk/science/additives/foodcolours (8) http://www.drweil.com/diet-nutrition/food-safety/is-carrageenan-safe/