Food labels may not be telling you the whole truth - KSLA News 12 Shreveport, Louisiana News Weather & Sports

The lies in food labels

We eat just as much with our eyes as we do our taste buds, and that's why food manufacturers are eager to serve up a variety of enticing pictures and promises on their packages.

The Food and Drug Administration has started cracking down on companies with overblown marketing claims.

If you examine any food product, you may have trouble matching the label on the front of the package to what's listed on the back.

What's facing you from every shelf is the creative work of food manufacturers and marketers.

"Having you perceive that a product is something different than the manufacturer wins that battle," says Johnson & Wales Culinary Instructor Ray Zoller.   

For example, we didn't find any butter in some brands of buttered popcorn, or real blueberries in one brand of blueberry cereal. Instead, what we found was a lot of flavoring.

"It's more cost-effective for them to do that than to put the natural product in there," Zoller said.

Natural and artificial flavors are made in laboratories, so be sure to take the time to read the fine print.

We found one brand of strawberry-flavored oatmeal that didn't have any strawberries at all, and instead had red-colored pieces of apple.

"Buyer beware," Zoller said. "You have to educate yourself about what you are buying."

When you are trying to buy foods made with whole wheat or grains, the first thing you should do is look at the ingredient label.

If 100-percent whole wheat or a grain-like rye isn't listed first, you could be buying a bag of bread made with mostly white flour and colored with molasses or caramel.

"So, we're marketing a product to appear as one thing when, in fact, it's something totally different," Zoller explained.

The same thing happens with juices versus drinks. We found one carton sitting in the orange juice section, but there was zero juice in it.

Some "juice" drinks primarily contain water and high-fructose corn syrup.

"You're looking at flavored sugar water," Zoller said.

It may sound too good to be true that manufacturers have invented things like "sugar-free cookies" and "sugar-free liquid sugar."

What they've invented is sugar alcohols, or compounds which the body is unable to absorb completely. They still have calories, but few enough per serving that the FDA doesn't require them to be counted on the label.

Anything labeled "natural" must be healthy, right?

Well, the FDA doesn't define the word, and there are some strong interpretations like adding sugar and palm oil to the ingredients in natural peanut butter.

"It is a natural ingredient, but it's something you wouldn't expect to be in peanut butter," Zoller said.

Experts say consumers should do a little more inspection of the products they intend to buy before putting them in your grocery cart.

Food manufacturers want your attention, so just make sure your focus is on the fine print so you'll know if what you're paying for matches the promise.

Ambiguous terms like "low" and "reduced" are often relative to serving size. You can call cake "low fat" if you only offer a small portion and watch out for fillers.

When manufacturers lighten or reduce one ingredient, it has to be replaced by something else. In some cases, it's replaced with sugars or cellulose, which is a compound found in wood.                                                     

Additional Information:

  • Food labeled as a "good source of fiber" doesn't always mean fiber from a natural source (i.e. grains). "Isolated fibers" from chicory root or polydextrose have also been used. (Source: NYTimes)
  • On the ingredient list, ingredients are listed in order of prevalence in the product, the first two being the most important. (Source: USAToday)
  • Whole grain claims should have whole oats, brown rice, whole rye, oatmeal, or wild rice as the first ingredient, not enriched wheat flour. (Source: USAToday)
  • If the product says, "made with whole wheat" check the fiber content.
  • If a product says, "made with whole wheat," check the fiber content. If the daily value is high or the product has five grams or more per serving, whole wheat content is high.
  • According to Scientific American, the natural flavor of coconut is not from a coconut, but from the bark of a tree in Malaysia.
  • The FDA requires the amount of juice be labeled on a package when it claims to contain juice. "Drinks" and "cocktails" need to be checked for sugars. (Source: Readers Digest)
  • "Nectars" is a common name for diluted juice beverages containing juice, puree, water and other sweeteners. (Source: Readers digest)
  • "Sugar free" means free of sucrose, but not sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols contain 1.5 to 3 calories per gram versus 4 from sugar. (Source: Readers Digest)

Click here for more information from the FDA.

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