Yes, food labels provide you with just about everything you need to know about the food you are eating. But it's the way they tell about what you're eating that may be the problem. It could be a sales pitch or rewording something so it doesn't sound harmful.
The New York Times published an article about "Six Meaningless Claims on Food Labels". There is A LOT more that you need to know about food labels but this provides a great starting point. Maybe we can follow this a post with a more complete one in the future.
Here are the six claims the article points out:
- Lightly-sweetened - Anyone can claim this and not be subjected to any federal regulation. The FDA has only placed regulations on "sugar free" and "no sugar added". A few weeks ago I saw a Frosted Flakes carton that claimed to have "reduced sugar". I though "that's awesome! I love Frosted Flakes and now w/ reduced sugar! I wonder if it tastes the same." Just now, I looked up nutritional info for regular and this reduced sugar product. Note the red marks I made. The first is in caloric intake. It's higher in the reduced sugar one! There are no nutritional changes, except for sodium and potassium (salts that are higher in the reduced sugar version). Next, the carbohydrate content. Fiber stayed the same. Would Kellog's please explain "Other carbohydrates"?
- Good source of fiber - Companies want to save money. It's a fact of doing business. They add fiber in the cheapest way possible. Fiber added to most products don't come from sources that are known to have beneficial fiber... soluble fiber. Instead, these product have isolated fibers that haven't been proven to lower cholesterol, blood sugar levels, or fat/carbohydrate absorption rates.
- Strengthens your Immune System - Be careful. This claim refers to ingredients and not the product. In nature, 1 + 1 usually doesn't equal 2. If the food isn't a whole food, like an apple or a tomato, it is virtually impossible to determine the actual effect on the immune system (unless scientific studies have been done on that specific product).
- Made with Real Fruit - Fruit may be present in extremely small quantities and may often be different from that marketed on the box. As ridiculous as it may sound, technically, with a single raisin, this claim is true.
- Made with whole grains - If whole wheat grain isn't the first ingredient on the list of ingredients, then it is not made from whole wheat grain. The ingredients appear in order of amount present in the product.
- All Natural - There is no regulation as to what "all natural" means. This is something that we face in the nutritional supplement industry where mined minerals are considered natural because they occur naturally in nature. Guess what, mercury and lead may also be considered natural. It's the same for foods. Fructose and fructose syrup occur naturally. Although, as pointed by the NYT article, the chemical and manufacturing process should not be considered natural.