Peter G. Lurie, MD, MPH

This month’s Nutrition Action, like many, alerts readers to the latest crop of misleading claims on food labels.

There seems to be an endless supply. And many of the claims are written in code words that let companies make foods sound healthier than they are.

Here’s a cheat sheet:

Flavored. “Flavor” or “naturally flavored” next to, say, the word “apple” is often code for “contains little or no apple.” It means you’re getting apple flavor instead of apple.

Made with. “Made with real fruit” or “made with whole grain” is usually code for “made with some” or, too often, “made with very little” real fruit or whole grains.

Support, enhance, maintain. Claims like “supports brain health” or “maintains immunity” are code for “we’re betting that the Food and Drug Administration won’t ask us to cough up much evidence for this claim.” They’re called structure-function claims (as opposed to disease claims like “treats Alzheimer’s,” which do need evidence).

Antioxidants. That’s usually code for “this food has added vitamins C and E to make it sound healthy.” Most studies that have given people high doses of those vitamins—for example, to reduce the risk of cancer or heart disease—have come up empty.

No nitrates or nitrites added. The small print says something like “except those naturally occurring in celery powder and sea salt.” That’s code for “you’re still getting plenty of nitrates and nitrites from the celery powder.” And those additives may help explain why processed meats (like bacon, ham, hot dogs, and sausage) raise the risk of colorectal cancer.

At the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action’s publisher, we’re working not just to expose these and other misleading claims but to get rid of them.

For example, in 2016 our lawyers sued Kellogg on behalf of consumers for splashing a “made with whole grain” claim on the front of some of its Cheez-It boxes. The crackers were mostly white flour.

Kellogg argued that its labels weren’t misleading because they disclosed the number of grams of whole grain, and white flour came before whole wheat in the ingredients list. (Ingredients are listed in descending order.)

In December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with us. It ruled that the disclosures in fine print don’t “adequately dispel the inference communicated by the front of the package” and that a “reasonable consumer would be misled” by the labels.

We’ve also pressed the government to explicitly prohibit deceptive claims like these. For example, we’ve urged the FDA to require any label that makes a “whole grain” claim to also disclose how much is whole: 50 percent? 5 percent? Labels should say. Similarly, if a label makes a “made with real fruit” claim, it should disclose how much fruit is in the food.

It’s hard enough for consumers to eat a healthy diet. They shouldn’t need to carry a secret decoder ring while grocery shopping.

Peter G. Lurie, MD, MPH, President
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Photo: Suraya Bunting/CSPI.