What do Food labels really mean?
Natural: Food labelled “natural,” according to the USDA definition, does not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives and the ingredients are only minimally processed. However, they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals. Regulations are fairly lenient for foods labelled “natural.” Producers must submit a sort of application at the time of slaughter, detailing practices used throughout the life of the animal. Labels are evaluated to prevent mislabelling but no inspections are conducted and producers are not required to be certified.
All Natural: The USDA does not define foods labelled “all natural” as any different than those labelled “natural.” Foods with this labelling are probably not any different than “natural” foods and may not be regulated as they are not defined by the USDA.
Organic: Foods labelled “organic” must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients and the other 5% must be approved on the National List provided by the USDA. They cannot be produced with any antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, petroleum or sewage-sludge based fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Each organic ingredient must be identified along with the name of the certifying agency.
“When people stop to think about it, there’s nothing healthy about Antioxidant Cherry 7-Up — it’s mostly filled with high fructose syrup or sugar. But its name is giving you this clue that there is some sort of health benefit to something that is not healthy at all,” Northup, who is an assistant communications professor at the University of Houston and the co-director of the University’s Gulf Coast Food Project, noted in a news release.
Previous research has also confirmed that Americans are swayed by food packaging. People are more likely to assume that products with green labels are more nutritious. One recent study found that when chocolate is labeled “fair trade” — something that reflects its ethical business practices and has nothing to do with its nutritional quality — people assume it must also be healthier. Thanks to effective advertising tactics, kids are now more likely to be able to identify junk food brands compared to healthier brands.
Deceptive marketing may be particularly persuasive to Americans because most people don’t know how to read nutrition labels. When Northup asked participants to rate products on their healthfulness solely by looking at their FDA-approved nutrition label, many of them couldn’t do it accurately. About 20 percent of people picked Spam as a healthier product over salmon.
Advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) have been pressuring the FDA to crack down on misleading advertising claims for years, particularly for products that make overreaching claims about their health benefits. But the agency is slow to make meaningful policy changes to protect public health. Although the FDA released proposed tweaks to its iconic nutrition label in February, in an attempt to make it easier for people to understand, it will be several years before that regulatory change will actually take effect.
Sometimes, CSPI tries to take matters into its own hands. Last year, 7-Up agreed to stop selling sodas that tout antioxidants after the group filed a federal class action lawsuit against the company.