Food Label Deceptions to Watch Out For in 2000

WASHINGTON - Today the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued a “deceptive food label alert” for Y2K. The worst offenders include misleading labels for “lean” hamburger that is actually fatty, “natural” foods that contain highly processed ingredients, and “energy” foods that provide little more than calories.

   “Although food labels are much more reliable and informative than they were at the beginning of the 20th century, modern day “snake oil” claims will still be a problem in the 21st century,” stated Bruce Silverglade, CSPI’s director of legal affairs. “As a result, many consumers will continue to be hoodwinked into buying products they think are healthful but, in fact, are of poor nutritional value,” said Silverglade.

  • Some of the most misleading food claims to beware of in the year 2000 include:

    “Lean” ground beef: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires that to be labeled “lean,” all meat and poultry must contain no more than 10% fat by weight — except for ground beef. Because of that loophole, so-called “lean,” or even “extra lean,” ground beef may contain up to 22.5% fat, which is not lean at all!

    “Natural” foods: Consumers may assume that “natural” foods are healthful and contain only pure, natural ingredients. However, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never officially defined the term, many companies describe foods as natural, even when they contain highly processed ingredients. Quaker “100% Natural” cereal contains factory-made hydrogenated oil, which increases blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.

    “Energy” foods: Many labels use the term “energy” to imply that a food will help fight fatigue or make one feel more energetic. For example, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes misleadingly claims to be “enhanced with more B vitamins to release energy from food to help your children get through the morning.” Despite claims, there is no evidence that “energy” foods make people more energetic than other foods that provide as many calories.

    “Fruit drinks“: “Fruit drinks,” which often picture loads of fruit on their labels, pretend to contain significant amounts of fruit juice and are often marketed as a more healthful alternative to soft drinks. In reality, many “fruit drinks” are largely artificially colored sugar water and contain minimal amounts of fruit juice. Fruitopia “Real Fruit Beverage” and Sunny Delight “Real Fruit Beverage,” for example, contain only 5% juice.

   “CSPI has urged the FDA and USDA to close ‘label loopholes’ for almost three decades, but the agencies have failed to act,” stated Leila Leoncavallo, CSPI senior staff attorney. “So it's still ‘buyer beware’ — just as it was at the beginning of this century.“

  • Other troublesome label problems include:

    Genetically-engineered foods: An increasing number of processed foods contain genetically engineered ingredients. Foods ranging from tortilla chips to powdered infant formula contain genetically engineered components. Some consumers may wish to avoid such foods but cannot do so because the federal agencies do not require them to be labeled.

    Caffeine content: Caffeine content is not required to be disclosed on labels and is usually impossible for consumers to determine. For instance, a cup of Dannon Coffee Yogurt has as much caffeine as a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola, while a Dannon Light Cappuccino Yogurt has no caffeine.

    Added sugars: The federal government does not require labels to disclose the amount of added sugars that a food contributes to the maximum amount one should consume per day. The USDA recommends that people consume no more than 10 teaspoons of added sugars per day (based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet). Many foods provide a large percentage of that recommended limit — a typical cup of fruit yogurt provides 70% of a day's worth of added sugar, a cup of regular ice cream provides 60%, and a 12-ounce Pepsi provides 103%. Labels, however, leave consumers in the dark.

    Fresh meat and poultry: Nutrition information is required to be disclosed on virtually all packaged foods except for fresh meat and poultry. As a result, consumers may not realize that a serving of “lean” ground beef is actually high in fat.

    Unrealistic serving sizes: Many serving sizes established by FDA and USDA that are used by food manufacturers to convey nutrition information are unrealistically small and are not representative of the amounts of food that most Americans typically eat. For example, the serving size for steak is three ounces (about the size of a deck of cards) and the serving size of ice cream is ½ cup.