Food labeling is something that most people don’t think to take very seriously. And at times, it might be better that way as there are some fairly deceptive practices when it comes to food labeling. More on that soon.
Most people are pretty familiar with the traditional food labels. For instance, you know what the Nutrition Facts panel communicates on the back of a box of cereal.
However, certain food labeling practices are deceptive, and it’s important to educate yourself about what food labels mean, especially if you eat a vegan or vegetarian diet. Food labels like “organic,” “free-range,” and “natural” can be deceiving.
And even if you think that you’re savvy about food labels, almost 59 percent of consumers report that they experience confusion when reading those labels. If you’re in the same boat, you’re definitely not alone.
The problem is that product packaging comes with lots of messages — many of which are meaningless. It’s important to look past marketing and get to the facts before you fill your cart at the supermarket.
As we’ll explain below, this is even more important if you’re vegetarian or vegan. You don’t want to accidentally eat something that contains meat or animal by-products just because you believed a deceptive food label.
Let’s look at the important facts and secrets of food labeling so you can shop smart.
Food Labeling Basics
The only thing that’s required to appear on food packaging is the Nutrition Facts panel. It tells you about macro and micronutrients as well as vitamins, minerals, and ingredients. Every country has different laws about what must appear on a food label.
The ingredients list is the most important thing to check. It will let you know if the product contains any substances you might want to avoid, such as eggs, dairy, or meat stock.
However, these ingredients lists aren’t always easy to read. They often contain names of substances most normal people can’t pronounce and certainly can’t define. If you don’t know what you’re putting into your body, how can you maintain a healthful diet?
For instance, carmine is found in red food coloring and comes from boiled insects, while L-Cyesteine is frequently made from bird feathers. Meanwhile, rennet is found in cheese and is made using cow stomach.
If these facts surprise you, consider taking a different approach to shopping for food. While food labeling can help you determine what a specific product contains, these strange names can throw you for a loop — and ruin your diet.
What’s the solution?
Focus on fitting as many whole foods into your diet as possible. Make your own recipes using fresh fruits and vegetables. When you eat whole foods, you don’t have to worry about food labeling confusion, and you won’t accidentally eat something that isn’t vegan-friendly.
Most people don’t know that nutrition marketing exists even though they’re exposed to it daily. Nutrition marketing refers to the claims made on food packaging that extoll the benefits of specific ingredients in that food.
For instance, an ice cream carton might proclaim that the icy treat inside contains extra calcium and vitamin D. Those sound like good things, right?
It’s a way to distract the consumer from the fact that the ice cream also contains huge amounts of fat and sugar. Even unhealthy foods can contain unhealthy ingredients or macros.
Think of nutrition marketing as an analogy for used car lots. Salespeople will go on and on about a model’s amazing fuel efficiency and beautiful paint job, but neglect to talk about the 10,000 miles on the odometer or the transmission that might go out at any second.
If a used car dealer knows that a vehicle has a faulty engine, he or she is legally obligated to tell you, just as Nutrition Facts food labeling will tell you about fat and sugar. However, that doesn’t mean the seller won’t focus on the good stuff.
Vague Food Labeling Claims
Nutrition marketing can also use food labeling tactics that promise to provide a specific benefit for the body, such as improved joint health or better cardiovascular performance. This is a tactic known as “puffing.”
There aren’t, in most cases, any studies to prove that a particular product can help you achieve those health goals. Instead, the company knows that the product contains an ingredient that has been tied to a specific health benefit.
For instance, potassium has been consistently linked to reduced instances of heartburn. A product that contains potassium can have a label on it that says something like, “Helps beat heartburn to the punch!” This could technically be true, but it’s a distraction from anything that might make the food unhealthy.
Food Labeling Tricks to Watch Out For
Now that we’ve covered the various facets of nutrition marketing, what food labeling issues should give you the most pause? We’ve collected a list of some of the most misleading food labeling tactics and what you should consider before you buy.
Organic Food Labeling
The word “organic” has lots of different meetings. In scientific terms, it refers to living organisms, whether plant or animal. When it comes to food labeling, though, it takes on a whole new importance.
The USDA has cracked down on the use of the word “organic” in food labeling. Any product that claims to be “organic” must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. Those with 70 percent organic ingredients can be labeled with the designation “Made With Organic Ingredients.”
That’s just in the United States, though. Many other countries don’t have the same oversight, and even in the United States, some products skate under the radar. This is especially true at venues like farmer’s markets.
And, if you’re a meat eater, you have to be particularly careful. The standards for organic meat are appallingly loose. For instance, farmed animals must eat organic feed, but the standards don’t specify what type of feed the animals must get.
Plus, the rules state only that animals must have access to the outdoors. This could mean five minutes per day. Farmed animals are still treated poorly even on organic farms. They have tiny cages or pens, often live in their own filth, and can be overfed to the point of obesity.
Free Range Food Labeling
The truth behind free-range food is just as disturbing. Many animals on these farms suffer horrific abuse, from debeaking and dehorning to castration without anesthetic. Pigs have rings in their ears so they can’t root, which is a natural activity for them, and chickens live in cramped cages without the ability to give themselves dust baths.
Dairy cows face similar conditions. They get artificially impregnated every year, and their calves are stolen from them mere minutes or hours after birth. These cows don’t get to nourish their young or form bonds with the calves, which causes extreme distress and depression.
Keep in mind that farm animals are social animals. They care for their young, travel together, and defend one another. When they’re forced to live solitary lives and prevented from carrying out their instincts, they’re miserable until they finally reach the slaughterhouse.
The cycle of animal cruelty doesn’t end there. The animals birthed on dairy farms face the same destinies as their mothers. The females are used as dairy cows themselves, forced to give birth to calves they’ll never nurture. Meanwhile, the male calves are kept in tiny cages until they’re fat enough to be slaughtered for veal.
Food labeling doesn’t give you the full story, especially when it comes to meat, dairy, and eggs. It won’t tell you that the animals were viciously slaughtered by electrocution, throat slitting, or similarly painful ends. Nor will it tell you that the animals suffered from infections or were mutilated before they died.
All Natural Food Labeling
There’s no legal definition of the word “natural” when it comes to food. So, what does an “all-natural” food product contain?
In some cases, all-natural foods are whole foods, which are the ones you should be buying. Whole foods are ingredients rather than foods that contain ingredients you can’t pronounce. You can use them in healthy recipes for your family.
All-natural processed foods don’t really exist, but you’d think they do based on food labeling procedures.
Consider, for instance, that all foods need preservatives if they’re going to retain a shelf life of more than a few days. Simply adding preservatives eliminates the potential for a food to be all natural.
The FDA permits foods labeled as natural to include hormones, antibiotics, and natural preservatives. Furthermore, there’s no distinction in food labeling between “natural” and “all natural.” Ignoring these words entirely will put you in a better position to select healthful food choices.
When it comes to animals and their by-products, you have to question whether there’s any possibility for those products to be natural at all. What’s natural about breeding animals with the sole purpose of killing them or stealing their milk or eggs?
Chickens lay eggs and cows produce milk for specific biological purposes. It’s no different from a human woman who produces milk to feed her child.
Yet we’re constantly taking from these animals what’s rightfully theirs. Worse, we’re slaughtering them for our food despite the fact that we can meet our dietary needs with plant-based protein. There’s nothing natural about hanging animals upside down and slitting their throats.
Food Labeling Terms to Watch Out For
If you’re concerned about your health — as everyone should be — there are several food labeling pitfalls that can trip you up. Let’s look at a few of the most popular ones.
No Sugar Added
You’ll see this food label on many products geared toward people who want to reduce their carbohydrate intake. The problem is that many consumers read it as “no sugar,” which isn’t the case.
For instance, canned fruits might not have any sugar added to the juice, but they contain natural sugars. This isn’t a bad thing in moderation, but you have to read all food labels to know how much sugar you’re actually consuming.
You’re better off buying whole wheat bread — sometimes labeled as 100% wheat — than multigrain bread. While the latter might sound more wholesome because it implies multiple types of grains, it also means that processed flour can be included.
Sugar-free foods are all over supermarkets. They’re praised for their delicious addition to a low-carb diet. However, food manufacturers often make up for the loss of sugar with more fat and other unhealthy additives.
The same goes for fat-free items. Food labeling can be persuasive, especially when it comes to the dreaded word “fat.” In this case, the lack of fat is made up for with sugar. That’s why you rarely see fat-free, sugar-free foods — at least, ones that are palatable.
Food Labeling and Nutrition for Allergies and Sensitivities
If you have a food allergy or sensitivity, you must be extra careful about reading food labels and understanding their contents. Certain food issues, such as those with gluten and wheat, can make shopping much harder.
People with irritable bowel syndrome and similar conditions must follow low-FODMAP diets, which are extremely detailed and precise. Again, the best way to manage such a condition is to avoid food labeling altogether and buy only whole, unprocessed foods.
Generally, people with bowel conditions need bland, non-colorful foods in their diets, from potatoes and cauliflower to ginger and melon.
The more restrictive your diet is, the more you have to consider food labeling at the grocery store. Steer clear of foods that contain tons of ingredients because you’re more likely to encounter an ingredient that will upset your stomach.
Food Labeling for Vegans and Vegetarians
Food labeling is essential, regardless of your dietary lifestyle, but if you’re vegan or vegetarian, you have to be particularly careful. Your best bet is to stick with whole, unprocessed foods. That way, you never have to wonder what’s in your meals.
Of course, we all lead busy lives, and sometimes you need something you can pop into the microwave. Here are a few tips to keep you grounded in your vegetarian or vegan lifestyle:
- Choose processed foods with the fewest possible ingredients
- Use your phone to look up ingredients you don’t recognize
- Find brands that are committed to producing cruelty-free products
- Research specific products to find out if their manufacturers use hormones, artificial preservatives, pesticides, or toxic chemicals
You also have to think about product labeling. From soap and shampoo to clothing and home furnishings, vegans must be vigilant about buying products and maintaining their values.
Food labeling and nutrition are important, but so is living a life that doesn’t contribute to animal cruelty. The more you know about what goes into your products, the easier it becomes to live your values.
Food labeling isn’t nearly as clear, concise, and transparent as it should be. Lots of people are confused about what specific food labels mean, especially those that are often used erroneously, such as organic, free range, and all natural.
However, if you’re vigilant about reading food labels and eating as many whole foods as possible, you can maintain your health. Additionally, if you eat a cruelty-free diet and avoid animals and their by-products, you’ll want to avoid foods that contain even traces of what you don’t want to eat.
Do you have any frustrations with food labeling? If so, what are they?
Sentient Media editorial team.