Five Misleading Food Labels

My Generation

Day 13 of 30: if everything is all-natural, hormone-free, HFCS-free, GMO-free and free of anything else you might think is bad...what does it contain, exactly?

Published on: November 13, 2013

1. "No high fructose corn syrup!" The question to ask here is whether the product had any high fructose corn syrup to start with. Because like any good marketing ploy, companies have been known to jump on the band wagon and declare their product free of something it never had to start with. Also, if you've been told HFCS is bad because of all the processing, consider this: sugar cubes do not grow on trees. It's all been processed, people. Incidentally, we may see less of this label in the future: Hunts Ketchup (made by ConAgra) and Capri Sun (made by Kraft Foods) have both switch back to HFCS after removing it from their products, citing consumer indifference and sugar prices, respectively. Another bit of info to tuck in your hat: Kraft Foods led food manufacturers in introducing 10% of all HFCS products between 2002 and 2011.

Image design by Erin Ehnle, Keeping It Real: Through the Lens of a Farm Girl.
Image design by Erin Ehnle, Keeping It Real: Through the Lens of a Farm Girl.

2. "All natural!" Seriously. What does this even mean? Vagueness disguised as marketing. USDA and FDA have vague rules about this phrase, and manufacturers have taken advantage.  

3. "Hormone free!" I'm going to have to resist the urge to keep saying "seriously." Every food has hormones, even (and especially) milk. Read here for a list of how much estrogen is found in a variety of foods.

4. "GMO free!" Brace yourself, because we're only going to see more of this, as the bandwagon swings near. Again, be on the watch for products labeled as GMO free that have no potential for GMO-corn or GMO-soy ingredients in the first place.

5. Serving size. This is less a label than it is a designation, but it makes me crazy to see something that's sold and packaged as a single serving (think small bags of chips, or even candy bars) list 2.5 servings or something on the back. And when you do the math on that 90-calorie item, it turns out it's actually 225 calories if you eat the whole thing. Which is what most people do. Moral: read and do math. Carefully.


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  1. Renfield8 says:

    I am in the food industry, and have seen how manipulated the public are by buzzwords and brujajas. An extreme example would be the "Lean Finely Textured Beef" (LFTB) tha t ABC news decided to smear for ratings sake. They even found a biochemist to give it the moniker "Pink Slime." (I'm still mad about this one) The corporation that I work for believes that LFTB was a good product, and even the FDA passed it for public use (for years). But even the biggest corporations were brought to their knees, at the public outcry (brought on by cheap scare tactics). The biggest loser is the livestock. More cows must be killed for the same amount of beef, jacking up the price of ground beef 20 cents, immediately. And all on a whim. (am I preaching?)

  2. Julie Mussselman Reiling says:

    It is against Federal regulations for a food to be labeled "xxxxx-free" when that food doesn't normally contain that item anyway. I work in the food industry and we constantly remind our clients that they can not do that. I also cringe when they want their product to be all natural. By whose definition? The FDA says that food labeled natural should contain no artificial flavors or added colors of any kind. And that's pretty much it. Usually they come back with the no HFCS (but sugar is fine) and no preservatives but want it to taste homemade and last for a year! The serving sizes are crazy; it is a lot of fun trying to figure those out when putting a food label together. That is something that the FDA should probably revisit.

  3. Jennifer Vandeburg says:

    I like how you've put this. I've started pointing out how unethical it is for marketers to prey on customer fears. I am not sure people are used to thinking about the ethics of sales & marketing, but it exists. If you respect your customers, you don't view them as victims or sheep to be fleeced.

    • Holly Spangler says:

      So true, Jennifer.