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Food labels part 2:
Truth, accuracy, usefulness of label claims.


Part 2 of our food label series examines the truthfulness, accuracy, and usefulness of label claims; in particular, front-of-package information.

Separating fact from fiction

There’s a lot of information on any given package. How do you know what’s useful and accurate… and what’s not?

Some label claims are governed by laws that say manufacturers can’t make false claims.

For instance, a can of tomatoes must say “tomatoes”, and the consumer can be pretty confident that there won’t be tuna fish inside when she opens it.

Generally, there are laws that control labeling of:

  • ingredients
  • nutrition information (although this can be inaccurate and fuzzy)
  • country of origin and/or manufacturer
  • other relevant health, safety, and/or agricultural information, such as the grade of beef or eggs; whether the food has GM ingredients (in some areas); etc.

There are no laws, however, that control other terms. And this is where things can get messy.


Problem: Terms that seem helpful or descriptive can actually be trademarks.

Bought any Swiss Water® decaf lately? Sounds like a nice fresh spring is gently caressing the caffeine away from your coffee, doesn’t it?

Well, Swiss Water® is actually a registered trademark of the Swiss Water Coffee Company, owned by Ten Peaks Coffee.

Danone advertises its healthy bacteria in its Activia product. The bacteria in question is Bifidobacterium animalis DN 173 010. However, it’s variously labeled Bifidus regularis, Bifidus actiregularis, Bifidobacterium lactis, Digestivum essensis, and Bifidus digestivum.

These sound great. Except there’s no such organism taxonomically.

Danone claims it is a substrain of Bifidobacterium animalis. Microbiologists are skeptical.

Problem: Terms that are controlled for one type of food may not be controlled for another.

The term “natural”, for instance, is controlled by the USDA in the United States… except it doesn’t apply to everything.

You can’t stick the “natural” label randomly on a meat or poultry product – but you can slap it on a granola bar made with high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil.

Problem: Terms can be fuzzy – at least to consumers.

For example, the term “juice”. What is “juice”? Well, to most consumers, it’s something like the fresh-squeezed liquid from a fruit.

However, on the label, you might see:

  • “__ juice” (e.g. “60% apple juice”)
  • “diluted __ juice” (e.g. “diluted apple juice”)
  • “juice drink” or “juice beverage”
  • a picture of the fruit

See any of these and you might expect, well, juice. Except it’s not. The product could easily be a blend of juices, something that was freeze-dried and then reconstituted, or something made with a little bit of juice, and topped up with water and flavoring.

Problem: Food labeling might not be in sync with new technology.

For instance:

  • Is sodium lactate from corn “natural”? What about ethanol from corn? High-fructose corn syrup?
  • If we somehow invent a new food coloring from kale – will that food coloring inevitably be good for us?
  • If Splenda (aka sucralose) is “made from sugar”, as the manufacturer claims… is it the same as sugar?

Hundreds of new food products appear on the market every year. It’s hard for regulators to keep up.

As technology makes it possible to derive new substances from existing foods or plants, the line between “natural” and “artificial” will become increasingly blurry.

Problem: Terms may be meaningless in real life, with a normal serving size.

Something labeled “low fat”, for example, may qualify as such because it has only a few fat grams per serving. But the serving size recommended may be ridiculously small. If you ate a normal-sized portion, you might get much more fat (or sugar, or sodium, etc.) than the label specifies.

Problem: Terms may be doing a little semantic dance.

For example: What is sugar?

We could all agree that sucrose – aka table sugar – is definitely sugar. But what about:

  • glucose?
  • high-fructose corn syrup?
  • honey?
  • molasses?
  • rice syrup?
  • maltodextrin?

There are lots of food substances that are technically sugary, but that don’t get labeled as such. A manufacturer could put other non-table-sugar substances into a food and label it “low-sugar”.

Same holds true for “fat-free” and the use of ingredients such as mono- and diglycerides.

Problem: Terms may be purposely misleading or incongruous, to bypass regulations.

Think of “buttery”; “no artificial ingredients”; “light-tasting”; “a nutritious source of fiber”;  “made with real fruit”; “part of a healthy breakfast”; etc. Or brand names like “Too Good To Be True”; “Healthy Choice”; “Lean Cuisine”; etc.

These don’t mean anything. But they’re evocative. They conjure up an image that you associate with the product.

Another example is labeling vegetable-based ingredients “cholesterol-free” or sugary candies “fat-free”. These things never had cholesterol or fat in the first place.

Orange juice manufacturers won a victory in the mid-20th century with a battle over who could say “not-from-concentrate”. This makes you think of a nice farmer squeezing oranges in Florida for you, instead of a boiled orange pulp slurry, doesn’t it? Good – that’s what labelers are hoping.

Use of terms like these is not regulated. Manufacturers might not be able to say “fresh-squeezed orange juice” but they can say “fresh-squeezed taste”.

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Making food labels easier to understand

In usability research, there is a difference between creator-friendly and user-friendly information.

Creator-friendly information is geared to the interests of the creators. For example, imagine a pair of building engineers telling you all about the details of the heating and cooling systems, and why they used ¾” inch piping instead of ½”. It’s what they’re interested in, and think you want to know… even if you don’t.

Conversely, user-friendly information is stuff that you, the user, actually want and need to know. In the case of a building, you probably want to know things like Where are the exits?, Where is the bathroom? and Is there a coffee shop downstairs? You don’t care if the plumbing has ¾” pipes as long as the darn toilet flushes.

Unfortunately, the regulation part of many nutrition labels are, arguably, creator-friendly. They consist of information that scientists find interesting, presented often in ways that scientists would find useful.

For instance:

  • What % of the RDA for calcium does this product contain?
  • How many fat grams are in here?
  • What proportion of those fat grams are saturated?
  • What is the amount of sodium benzoate relative to mono- and di-glycerides?

But perhaps you may want to know things like:

  • Will this food make me fat?
  • Does this food cause cancer in lab rats?
  • Should I feed this food to my kids or is it an express ticket to Hyperactivetown?

After all, you probably don’t think in terms of grams and percentages when you eat. (And arguably, you likely shouldn’t.)

Many folks don’t find lists of numbers all that useful or informative. All they really want to know is: Should I eat this or not?


Back-of-package vs. front-of-package

Normally, nutrition information is found on the back of the package. This means you have to pick up the package, weed through the exorbitant claims and flashy colors on the front of the package, still want to read the label, flip the package, and start reading.

If you have to do this for each thing you buy, it adds up. Buy 25 packaged items in the grocery store and spend 1 minute reading each label, then factor in time standing in line and wandering around looking for the aisle with frozen peas, and you can easily spend 45 minutes in the store just buying a couple of bags of groceries.

Rushed and busy consumers simply don’t bother. (Of course, if they followed PN guidelines and ate whole foods, that would save them a lot of time. A bunch of fresh spinach doesn’t have a nutrition label. But let’s leave that for now.)

Thus, many government food agencies have suggested putting nutrition information on the front of the package instead. Ideally, front-of-pack labeling would be easier to get to and understand. Proposed front-of-pack nutrition labeling systems simplify the information, ideally helping the consumer decide what to buy.

As with back-of-pack food labels, front-of-pack food labels vary by region. To date, all front-of-pack recommendations are voluntary, not mandatory.

For instance:

  • The UK Food Standard Agency (FSA) has asked companies to voluntarily use the Traffic Light Signpost labeling guidelines since 2005. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is debating a similar system.
  • The European Commission proposed front-of-pack labeling in 2008 that showed major nutrients (calorie, total fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt contents).
  • In Australia, many products carry the Heart Foundation tick and/or the Glycemic Index (GI) symbol. Australia is also looking into a “Traffic Light” label
  • At present in Korea, several companies are voluntarily practicing the front of pack nutrition labeling.

Many non-governmental organizations, such as the American Heart Association, also offer front-of-pack labels or point-of-purchase labels, such as Whole Foods’ Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) labeling system or the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System.

If consumers trust the organization, that affects their buying choices.

The AHA has offered nutritional endorsements since 1988. As the AHA describes:

“The American Heart Association’s heart-check mark is the most recognized and trusted food icon today . . . Eighty-three percent of consumers are aware of the heart-check mark. Sixty-six percent of primary grocery shoppers say the heart-check mark has a strong/moderate influence on their choices when shopping.“


Problems with front-of-pack labeling

At first glance (so to speak), front-of-pack labeling seems like a great idea. Ideally, it’s quick, easy to use, and a convenient shorthand.

However, the front-of-pack label is also a judgement. Eat this, not that. It’s not just information. It’s analysis and evaluation.

A front-of-pack label means that someone else is telling you what to eat.

Good, if that suggestion is informed; reflects the whole body of up-to-date nutritional evidence; and is in the consumer’s best interests. Bad, if that suggestion is determined by dodgy nutritional science, institutional politics or pressure from industry.

There are four important questions to ask about front-of-pack labels:

  • Who decides on the front-of-pack label?
  • How are the decisions made?
  • Does this label accurately reflect good nutritional practice?
  • Does this label actually mean anything?

For instance, the American Heart Association has endorsed things like:

  • Cocoa Puffs cereal (the AHA later rescinded this)
  • Campbell’s soups that, if eaten like a normal person would eat them (i.e. by not dividing a tiny container into two servings), exceed the daily sodium requirement
  • Welch’s juices with nearly 40 g of sugar per single-glass serving
  • A ready-to-eat pot roast with gravy entrée that involves the following ingredient list: Beef roast, dextrose, modified corn starch, hydrolyzed soy protein, autolyzed yeast, maltodextrin, sugar, caramel color, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils, xanthan gum, liquid soybean oil, salt (salt appears 3 times), whey, mono- and diglycerides, soy lecithin, sodium benzoate, citric acid, artificial flavor, beta-carotene, vitamin A palmitate, potassium sorbate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, corn, cream, modified food starch.

Sound heart-healthy to you? Not so much.

Conversely, other front-of-pack labeling systems may brand certain foods “unhealthy” or “red light” foods based on a limited set of criteria, when these foods are actually quite an appropriate part of the diet.

For instance, by the “traffic light” guidelines, grass-fed butter, raw nuts, and cold-pressed coconut oil might score as “red light” foods, because they’re so high in fat.

Who’s in charge of front-of-pack labels?

Front-of-pack label claims are only loosely controlled by various countries’ food agencies.

For instance, the USDA sent an open letter to manufacturers expressing concern that “the number and variety of label claims may not help consumers distinguish healthy food choices from less healthy ones and, indeed, may be false or misleading.”

This included things like:

  • Nutritional claims based on adult needs on foods for infants
  • Claims that a product is free of trans fats, which imply that the product is a healthy choice (even if it has other junk in it)
  • Products that claim to treat or prevent disease (e.g. “heart-healthy”)
  • Misleading “healthy” claims that do not meet the long- and well-established definition for use of that term
  • Juice products that mislead consumers into believing they consist entirely of a single juice, rather than juice blends (including flavoring agents, etc.)

At the moment, front-of-pack labeling is often like the Wild West, and it’s hard for the science sherriffs to hunt down the outlaws.

A case study: The ANDI score

Whole Foods says that its ANDI scores “are calculated by evaluating an extensive range of micronutrients, including vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidant capacities.” The ANDI recommendations are provided by an organization called Eat Right America, which offers corporate weight loss and wellness programs.

For instance:

  • Mustard/turnip/collard greens, kale, and watercress get a perfect score of 1000. Other leafy greens score high too.
  • Dark-colored berries, whose plant pigments offer lots of antioxidants, top the list of fruits.
  • Lentils are lookin’ good on the legume list.

We like all that.

But other judgements are more problematic. For instance:

Eggs vs egg substitute

Egg substitute (i.e. processed egg product) and egg white score higher than whole eggs, even though whole eggs are widely acknowledged to be one of the best, most bioavailable sources of protein, and egg yolks contain valuable nutrients such as choline, phosphorus, and selenium, and a notable amount of omega-3 fatty acids.

Egg substitute, in contrast, often contains vegetable oils, “natural flavors”, coloring, spices, salt, and emulsifiers such as xanthan gum and guar gum. Like soymilk, it must be “fortified” by adding industrially produced vitamins and minerals.

Turkey vs soymilk

Tofu and soymilk score higher than almost all listed meat, despite being highly processed foods. For instance, ANDI scores soymilk higher than turkey. This suggests that soymilk is “healthier” than turkey.

Table: ANDI scores for turkey vs soymilk

Turkey Soymilk
ANDI score 24 33

Yet soymilk usually contains a significant amount of sugar and must be “fortified” with additional vitamins and minerals, because it doesn’t contain these naturally.

So let’s explore the comparison between turkey and soymilk a little more. The table below looks at energy (aka calories) and macronutrients, using data from USDA Nutrition Data database for 1 cup serving.

1 cup of turkey dark meat is, indeed, higher in calories than 1 cup of soymilk. But turkey has way more protein (and better quality protein), no sugar, and arguably a better fatty acid profile (especially if it’s naturally raised turkey).

Table: Turkey vs soymilk: Energy & macronutrients

Turkey Soymilk
Total calories 227 131
Protein 40.4 g 7.9 g
Amino acid score
(100 = complete)
145 (very high) 33 (very low; in particular low in methionine and cysteine)
Grams of sugar per serving 0 g ~10 g
Omega-3 fatty acids 126 mg (assuming factory farming; pastured turkey meat would be higher) as DPA and DHA, with some ALA 182 mg (exclusively ALA)

Turkey dark meat naturally contains many more minerals and vitamins than soymilk – even with manufacturers adding industrially produced “fortification” to the soymilk to improve its nutrient profile.

Turkey scores higher than soymilk on 10 vitamins and minerals, often quite significantly. Soymillk scores higher than turkey on 5 vitamins and minerals, often barely (for instance, soymilk has 6% of the calcium RDA compared to turkey’s 4%).

The table below compares the micronutrients in turkey and soymilk, again using data from USDA Nutrition Data database for 1 cup serving.

Remember, soymilk must be “fortified” (i.e. have most nutrients added back in), while nutrients occur naturally in turkey.

Table: Turkey vs soymilk: vitamins and minerals

Yellow table cells highlight which food is higher in a given nutrient.

Nutrient Turkey Soymilk
Thiamin 5% 10%
Riboflavin 20% 10%
Niacin 24% 6%
Vitamin B6 27% 9%
Folate 3% 11%
Vitamin B12 9% 0%
Pantothenic acid 19% 9%
Calcium 4% 6%
Iron 19% 9%
Magnesium 8% 15%
Phosphorus 27% 13%
Potassium 10% 8%
Sodium 5% 5%
Zinc 39% 2%
Copper 16% 16%
Manganese 2% 27%
Selenium 82% 17%

Now, this isn’t about hatin’ on egg substitute or soymilk, or saying we should eat eggs or turkey. It’s simply questioning why and how certain products are ranked higher than others.

Based on the ANDI score, egg substitute or soymilk are “healthier”. But based on examining what’s actually in the food… whole eggs and turkey are clear winners.

As always, it pays to be a critical consumer.

Summary and action tips

  1. Think about what information is most useful to you as a health-conscious consumer. What is the most important thing for you to know about a given product?
  2. Look carefully at how products are presented to you. What pictures and words are on the package? What messages do those pictures and words send?
  3. Observe your instinctive food choices. For instance, are you somehow drawn to foods with nice packaging? With the word “natural” on the package? What features seem to appeal to you in particular? Why?
  4. Test your instinctive response to a food against the label’s truth. For instance, if a food says “heart-healthy” and that appeals to you… turn the package over and check out the ingredients. Does the ingredient list match the “heart-healthy” claim?
  5. Ask yourself how you “know” what you know. How do you “know” that this food is “better” than that food? What are you using to judge? How much do you trust food companies?
  6. Slow down. Take a minute to consider how you’re making buying decisions. Manufacturers depend on consumers being rushed, busy, inattentive, and impulsive. Put your cell phone down, take 30 seconds to read a package, and focus a few moments longer than normal. Why is this product in particular worth your hard-earned dollars?

To continue learning about food labels, check out part 3 of this article series where we examine calorie counts and back-of-package labeling.

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