food label montage

10 Dirty Secrets about Food Labels

June 12, 2015
Lists + Tips

Some of these are commonly known, while others are less publicly discussed. #1 and #2 really astound me.

10. Fortification

Vitamins and minerals are added to food, especially junk food to make them appear healthier.



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9. “And/or”

To save money on packaging costs related to supply of oils, emulsifiers and other ingredients derived from a range of crops (think canola oil, sunflower oil and soybean oil), companies simply use “or” across the options that may be included in the product.  For those with food allergies or who are trying to avoid certain types of foodstuffs it can prove problematic.  Additionally, to mitigate ingredient costs or achieve product texture and other properties, companies often combine multiple ingredients (again think rapeseed oil and sunflower oil) and list these together.


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8. Antibiotics and other chemicals not mandated for declaration 

The Center for Science in the Public Interest believes there are more than 7,000 ingredients including pesticides, environmental contaminants, and chemicals/antibiotics added to animal feed that escape declaration.  The FDA does not require these ingredients to be exposed on food labels.  There is one exception; coloring fed to farmed salmon does require a label.


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7. Organic and Gluten Free Halos

Organic sugar is still sugar. Companies use organic ingredients to make ingredients appear healthier and/or to obtain organic certification. Companies also put gluten free claims on products, like rice cakes, that don’t even have gluten as a possible ingredient.  Both of these activities help enhance the products health perception among consumers and can help command higher price points.


gluten free rice crispies

6. Vagueness

Instead of listing out specifics, the FDA allows companies to simply state that artificial colors or colors added versus specific scientific names for the artificial colors. This also is used by companies to mask intellectual property related to spices and recipes.


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5. Synonyms

Quick quiz. Which sounds healthier: ascorbic acid or vitamin C? It’s a trick question as they’re both the same, but companies often choose more consumer friendly names for their ingredients’ lists to overcome/capitalize on consumer perceptions.


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4. Serving Size

Food companies can manipulate nutrition facts to list a serving that is significantly smaller than what is normally consumed. Think 4 servings in a pint of ice cream and 2 servings in a 16 oz beverage. Thankfully this is currently being debated as part of a change towards more realistic serving sizes.


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3. Substitutes 

Knowing consumers have been told to look at the first 5 ingredients in an ingredient list, food companies use close relatives of common ingredients to hide the prominence of particular ingredients. Added Sugar alone has these 47 synonyms to use:


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Food companies have many options in introducing new food additives. One way is to simply certify an additive as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). According to the Pew Food Additivies project there are ~1000 ingredients that fall into this category.  The CSPI has this great infographic to sum up the process:


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1. 20% Margin of Error

The FDA allows a 20% margin of error for companies on food labels. This means, for example, calorie counts on food labels can be off by 20% and still be in compliance with FDA regulations. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found the calorie content on frozen food labels was on average 8% higher than the label claimed.  (The FDA has said that if ingredients are added to the food—rather than naturally occurring—they have to meet 100% of the label claim).  


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