Nine FAQs about Food Labels

Food Label“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we’ve been advised since childhood.  But how about judging a food by its label? Food labels are cluttered with information, in both big print and small, intended to both inform you and entice you to buy. Some of it is accurate, complete, and useful; some may, at times, be incorrect, misleading, and even deliberately deceptive.  Does the government make any effort to keep labels honest?  Is the nutritional information correct? In the Q/As below, two scientists on our Advisory Board and many other reliable sources provide answers to some key questions.


But first, a piece of advice: heed the saying that says “Buyer beware.” If you have the eyesight of a senior citizen, bring your reading glasses and a lightweight plastic magnifier with you to the supermarket so you can read the list of ingredients. The small print will give you a better idea of the content than any big, bold claims about low-fat and antioxidants.


Now, a warning: heed the packaging advice on handling a product whether it needs refrigeration, what temperature it should be cooked or heated to, how long to keep it, and so on.  (Also, use the Shelf Life Advice data on specific products to find out about proper care of specific foods.)


1. What do the federal government and the food industry do (and/or plan to do) so that food labeling actually helps consumers buy nutritious food?


Food scientist Dr. Karin Allen provides this reassuring information: “The FDA takes food labeling very seriously.  There are laws related to everything from the kinds of health claims that can be made, to the information that must be included on every label, to the size of the font that can be used in the Nutrition Facts Panel!  Also, the FDA considers any off-label information to be an “extension” of the food label – including signs placed in grocery stores, brochure/recipe card handouts, and websites.  Warning letters are regularly issued to companies that violate FDA laws, and the Federal Trade Commission scrutinizes all advertising as well.”  However, food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein points this out: “Unfortunately resources are limited and some aspects of economic fraud are not always followed up by FDA.”


The July 2011 issue of Consumer Reports on Health says that efforts to improve labeling are underway on two fronts. The FDA is developing a labeling system that, the magazine says, “will make selecting food quick and simple.”  Moreover, the food industry has initiated a “nutrition key” labeling program that emphasizes calories, saturated fat, and sodium on the front of many products.  Still, the magazine advises consumers to do these two things: read the nutrition box and pay close attention to serving sizes (which are often determined by the FDA).  The serving size on Ben and Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie ice cream is ½ cup.  Does anyone have the self-control to stop there?


2. What phrases on food labels are deceptive or misleading?


Here’s Dr. Allen’s answer:  “Phrases beginning with ‘high’, ‘low’, ‘a good source of’ and ‘reduced’ have specific meanings dictated by the FDA.  These vary by nutrient (sodium, fat, fiber, vitamins/minerals, etc.) and any claims including these words must follow the FDA guidelines.  ‘Antioxidants,’ in general, do not have an approved claim, so statements like ‘high in antioxidants’ are not allowed. (Sunsweet’s antioxidant blend dried fruits received a warning letter last year for making this statement on their package.)


The claim that a food is “natural” has no standard definition. Consumers assume it means that the food contains no additives and is only minimally processed, but that may not be the case. The package can say “made with…” even if that refers to a minute amount of something considered healthy. Generally, meat and poultry, which operate under USDA supervision, do need to meet some minimal standards for “natural.”


A label stating that a particular vegetable oil is “cholesterol-free” does not really set it apart as better than another brand; ALL vegetable oils are cholesterol-free because cholesterol is found only in animal products. The message “0 trans fats” on a liquid vegetable oil is pointless; there are no trans fats in any liquid vegetable oils.


Researchers have discovered that certain words and phrases have a  “halo effect,”  meaning that, like the virtue we attribute to angels, we believe in their inherent goodness. Don’t conclude that a product is low-calorie just because the package proclaims in large letters, “No Carbs!” When you read “natural” or “organic” or “fat-free” don’t assume that the food is healthier than a similar product that doesn’t make that claim. Check the calorie count plus fat, sugar, and salt content. The amount of calories, fat, sugar, and salt in a “serving size” may be misleading if the serving size is smaller than most people would eat.  However, for many products, the government and not the manufacturer determine the serving size.


What about those omega-3 claims? These, too, are sometimes misleading.  The Nutrition Action HealthLetter explains:  “Omega-3 may refer to the fats in fish oil (EPA and DHA) the omega-3 fats in flax, soy, and canola oil (ALA) or both.  The evidence is much stronger that EPA and DHA lower the risk of heart disease, but most omega-3 foods other than fish seafood, have only ALA.”  However, says Dr. Regenstein, “Some may argue that we need both EPA/DHA and ALA.”


Many consumers may not know this: a label can say that a product is free of trans fats if it has less than 0.5 grams per serving.  But if you eat multiple servings of that food, you may consume more trans fat than you realize. 


3. Does the order in the list of ingredients have any significance?


Each main ingredient is listed in order of its quantity in the food. (However, below 2%, they no longer have to be in order of amount.)  If the first ingredient listed is water and the second is sugar, do you really want to spend your money on this product?  A product may say in big letters on the front of the package that it contains blueberry juice (blueberries being one of the new “superfoods” that are supposed to be very high in antioxidants), but it can make that claim even if the product contains just  one drop of  blueberry juice.


4. Are the nutritional labels on food products accurate?


Not necessarily.  Dr. Regenstein calls this “the dirty little secret of nutritional labeling.”  Here are the rules:  If an ingredient is considered good, the number on the package must be no more than 20% higher than what the food actually contains. However, it doesn’t matter how much lower than the real figure it is.  For example, if a serving actually contains 10g of protein, the requirement is that the label says no more than 12g; however, since protein is considered officially healthy, it doesn’t matter how much in error the figure on the down side is.  On the other hand, fat is officially considered bad, so, if the product actually contains 10g of fat, the label can’t say less than 8g; however, the label on a fat-free product could say “10g of fat,” and the government wouldn’t care. 


5. Will the packaging tell me if the product contains a lot of salt and sugar?


It will if you’re knowledgeable about grams.


Sugar:  The package will list the amount of sugar in grams.  A teaspoon of granulated white sugar contains 4.2 grams. One Hostess Twinkie (the cream-filled sponge cake) has  18 grams (about 4 ½ teaspoons) of sugar. An 8 oz. glass of Mott’s apple juice contains 28 grams of sugar.  If those two items comprise a child’s after-school or bedtime snack, that’s 46 grams or about 11 teaspoons of sugar! I know many mothers who dilute their children’s apple juice with one-half water. A glass of Welch’s grape juice contains 36 grams of natural fruit sugar per 8 oz. glass.  Natural or not, that’s more than 8 teaspoons of sugar.  


Labels use a lot of other names for sugar. According to the Nutrition Action HealthLetter, high fructose corn syrup, the sweetener most commonly added to processed foods, is roughly half fructose and half glucose, just as sugar is. In the human body, HFCS does not function any differently than sugar, says Dr. Regenstein.  It’s used a lot in the U.S. because of the high tariff on sugar.  Other products that may be listed and essentially represent sugar are corn syrup solids, malt syrup, fructose sweetener, honey, molasses, and crystal dextrose.  Some products say “no added sugars” or “all natural sugar.” Whether it’s natural or not, it’s still sugar. 


Salt: Every day, the average American consumes about 1 1/2 teaspoons (8,500 milligrams) of salt, which contains about 3,400 mg. of sodium.  This amount is 50% higher than the 2,300 mg. of sodium recommended by the 2010 federal guidelines for healthy people. (That’s equivalent to about one teaspoon of salt.)  Furthermore, the American Heart Association recommends only 1,500 mg. of sodium for older people and those with borderline high blood pressure, heart conditions, kidney disease, or diabetes.  


If your goal is to consume about 1,500 mg of sodium a day, you don’t want the cup of soup  you consume to contain 800 mg. or more.  Before purchasing, check the sodium content on all packaged goods, especially soups, frozen meals, and other processed foods. 


6. Should I be concerned about the additives listed on nonorganic products? 


Food additives are regulated by the FDA under the Food Additives Amendment to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The USDA regulates meat products, based on the FDA approved additives. The FDA website has a very informative explanation of what types of additives can be used and examples of common names for ingredients you might see on the food label: To check it out, click here:  


7. What do the various organic labels mean?


Click here to find out:


8. What’s NOT on the label that some consumers may be looking for?


Food colorings:   The FDA recently rejected the petition asking that food labels

carry a warning stating that 6 food colorings could cause hyperactivity and attention deficit in children. The FDA believes that the evidence for this claim has not been established, but that more research should be undertaken. According to Dr. Regenstein, “Foods containing additives, including food coloring, receive the most comprehensive testing of all foods, more than “traditional” food.”


Genetically modified foods:  Will the package tell you if the food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? In Europe yes, but usually not in the U.S.  In the U.S., GMO labeling is voluntary and generally merely negative: products are sometimes labeled “GMO-free” or “Non-GMO Project Verified.”


Why aren’t American consumers being told when products contain GMOs? The FDA and, it seems, most American scientists believe this information is unnecessary because GMOs are safe, and the labeling would just confuse consumers and cause unnecessary anxiety. Quoted in the Chicago Tribune, molecular biologist Bob Goldberg makes this comment: “People have been eating products from genetically modified crops for almost 15 years. They’ve been more tested than any food product you can imagine, without a sneeze.” Requiring a statement of the inclusion of GMOs would affect a vast number of products. Genetically modified corn, soybeans and canola are widely sold in the U.S.  More than 70 percent of processed foods contain genetically engineered or biotech ingredients. Most commercial cheeses use a clotting enzyme that is made using GMO technology.


Many allergens:   More than 160 different foods are known to cause allergic reactions. The government’s labeling requirements do not protect everyone with a food allergy.  However, the 8 most common offenders account for 90% of all food allergies.  The FDA requires food manufacturers to list the presence of the most common food allergens on their labels.  These are the 8 foods included in the labeling requirements: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as almonds, cashew, and walnuts), fish (such as bass, cod, and flounder), shellfish (such as crab, lobster, and shrimp), soy, and wheat.  If the product contains one of these foods or a protein from one, it must be listed. In addition, Yellow 6 must be listed as an allergen.


 For more information on food allergies, click here:


9. What changes would improve food labeling and perhaps the American diet?


Here are the responses from two of the food scientists on the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board:


Dr. Karin Allen: I think presenting the information in the same format as the USDA food guide (formerly a pyramid, now a plate) would help consumers make a better connection.  They’re told by the USDA to get so many servings of different food groups, but the numbers on the nutrition facts panel don’t directly relate to that concept.


Dr. Joe Regenstein: A green, yellow red light system would be the easiest to convey information—but what information?  Different people are looking for different things.  Furthermore, it’s not clear whether anything on a label has much of an impact.  The posting of calories in restaurants does not seem to be causing major consumer change.


Sources in addition to the links within the article:


Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


Chicago Tribune “Genetically modified food labels unlikely in U.S. despite deal” July 16, 2011


Chicago Tribune “As clear as mud?  Sorting through vegetable oil claims” 7/20/11


Consumer Reports on Health “Food shockers: Bugs, BPA, and labels” July 2011.


Consumer Reports ShopSmart “Top 10 Food Shockers: What the labels won’t tell you”

June 2011


Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter “Guidelines to Good Health” May 2011


Environmental Nutrition “FDA Rejects Warnings on Food Colorings” July 2011


Nutrition Action Healthletter (published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest) “10 Common Food Goofs” April 2011 “Food Labels Are Serious Business”


You must be logged in to post a comment or question.

Sign In or Register for free.