The Misinformation on Food Labels


On Thursday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco brought back up a lawsuit regarding the amount of sodium ConAgra Foods lists on packages of their sunflower seeds. Currently, the company only lists the sodium for the seed's kernel on the packaging, not the sodium that's contained on the shell. And if you've ever eaten sunflower seeds before, you understand the common practice of eating them is not by peeling and only eating the kernel. (Not helping ConAgra's case is the fact they market a line of flavored seeds, with coatings containing "ranch" and "nacho" flavoring.)

The scariest thing about this case, though, is that it's not all that unusual. Food labels don't always mean what we expect them to.

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Over at U.S. News last week, there was a great piece about the "6 Ways the Food Industry Is Tricking You," which focused on faulty labeling practices. But this kind of thing is so rampant that mentioning only six bad labels doesn't cover enough ground. So, as a sort of addendum to that piece, here's six other food labels you need to be aware of the fine print before giving them consideration in your purchase.

1. "Free-range" and "cage-free"

Read the words "free-range" or "cage-free" on a carton of eggs, and you may think the egg-laying chickens have the best digs money can buy: Farmers feeding them grapes, fans blowing on them gently in the warm sun, plopping the eggs on a pillow made of velvet. The opposite is actually usually true. There's no actual requirements handed down by the USDA as to what constitutes "free-range," meaning there's no oversight. The chickens tend to have some access to open air, but the levels of that may vary; the most-cited stat is that chickens can be outside for as little as five minutes a day and still be considered "free-range." "Cage-free," on the other hand, means the chickens can't be in cages... but they don't ever have to go outside. Oh, and also, since they're pent up inside with others, they're allowed to have their beaks cut.

2. "Fresh" poultry

Perhaps because of the popular Wendy's advertising claim that their hamburgers are "always fresh, never frozen," it seems that the word "fresh" on labels for poultry would mean the same thing. That's not entirely accurate. All the word indicates is that the chicken never reached 26 degrees Fahrenheit. As those of you who didn't ditch high school science know, this is a full six degrees below the temperature that water freezes, meaning poultry that's shipped in refrigerated containers that hover around the high 20s is certain to have some parts of it full of ice. Also worth noting: A chicken doesn't have to be labeled "frozen" until it reaches 0 degrees.

3. "Free" or "Zero"

If a label claims that it's "free" or has "zero" of any item -- whether it's sugar, or fat, or cholesterol -- you should understand it doesn't necessarily mean a product has absolutely zero. To be listed as having "no sugar," items can have up to 0.5 grams. For fat, the same 0.5 grams. And for cholesterol, food that has up to 2 milligrams per serving can still be considered "cholesterol-free."

4. "Organic" seafood

Here's an example of a label that simply means nothing. The USDA has no standards for what "organic" means in the seafood world, meaning this label is nothing more than an advertising ploy to distinguish one particular piece of fish from the others that don't have this magic word. Don't be fooled.

5. "Naturally raised"

This is one of those labels that isn't entirely worthless, but may be misleading to some. In order to get certified "naturally raised" by the USDA, the animal must not be given growth promoters, antibiotics, or food containing animal by-products. So far, so good. But some people take this term to also mean the animal's welfare and/or environmental concerns are also taken into consideration. They are not. So, in theory, a "naturally raised" animal can still be raised on a factory farm using methods that are not environmentally-friendly. Check to make sure before buying.

6. "2%" milk vs. "Whole" milk

Quick, without looking: How much fat does "whole" milk have? If "2%" has only the listed two percent, it makes sense that "whole" would have something way higher, right? Wrong. All the "whole" part means is that it has, at the most, a fat content of 3.25%. That's only 1.25% higher than the seemingly way more watered down variety! Now, this isn't so much a case of intended misinformation, as much as a label definition that doesn't exactly translate to the general public.

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