Food Labels: Meaningful or Marketing?

Can you trust the messaging on food labels?

Or are consumers being deceived?

food labels

Food labels became mandatory in Canada for all prepackaged foods on December 12, 2007 (large companies were required to comply earlier in 2005). Nutrition Facts Labels were first implemented by the US in 1994. The goal of these labels is inform the consumer about their food chocies. The Food and Drugs Act (FDA) of Canada states the following:

The new regulations on food labels aim at preventing injury to the health of Canadians, including those with special dietary needs, by providing product-specific nutrient information to assist in making informed food choices. The objectives of these Regulations are:

- To enable consumers to make appropriate food choices in relation to reducing the risk of developing chronic diseases and permitting dietary management of chronic diseases of public health significance.

- To encourage the availability of foods with compositional characteristics that contribute to diets that reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases.

I've always been a huge fan of these labels because they make it easy for me to figure out what I'm putting into my body, and also because they give everyone a fair shot at eating a decent diet. With that said there are 2 major red flags to be aware of when it comes to food labels.

Labels Are Lying To You

The backs of food labels contain the ingredients list and Nutrition Facts Labels; if you don't know how to use this information, I've laid it out for you in a post here. Laws actually govern the information that's on the back of labels and the following food label information must always be correct:

  • Ingredients
  • Nutrition information (although there is some wiggle room here, to be discussed below)
  • Country of origin and/or manufacturer
  • Any other relevant health, safety, and/or agricultural information, such as the grade of beef or eggs, genetically-modified ingredients, etc.

With that said, the front of labels are be very misleading, and you can't believe everything that you read. Just because something on the front of a label sounds healthy doesn't necessarily mean any about the quality of the product. Terms and phrases to ignore include:

  • "Natural" or "All-natural"
  • "Low-fat", "Low-sugar" or "Low-calorie"
  • Buzz words like "Fresh", "Real", "Nutritious", "Healthy", or "Balanced"

These words and phrases are used to make consumers feel like they are making a good choice, but the only way to truly make an informed decisions is to read the Nutrition Facts Label on the back of the product. Flashy colours and catchy marketing slogans on the front of food labels will always lead you astray; flip your products around to get the info you need.

Calorie Counts Are Inaccurate

This video explains things pretty well:

[kad_youtube url="https://youtu.be/hE2lna5Wxuo" maxwidth=800 ]

For those of you that don't have 6 minutes to spare, the state of New York is forcing chain restaurants (with over 20 locations nationally) to post the calorie content of all foods on their menu. This is great in theory, but nobody is enforcing the accuracy of these calorie claims- the FDA simply wants to see a number posted. The author of the video then goes on to compare the actual content of 5 foods vs. the claimed calorie content. The results:

  • Banana nut muffin: Actual 735 vs. 640 Claimed
  • Starbucks grande frappuccino: Actual 393 vs. 370 Claimed
  • Chipotle barbacoa burrito: Actual 1290 vs. 1175 Claimed
  • Kosher, vegan, spicy tofu sandwich: Actual 548 vs. 228 Claimed
  • Subway 6" turkey sandwich: Actual 350 vs. 360 Claimed

Overall, if consumed in one day, this person would have taken in an extra 549 calories than anticipated, which is legitimately quite significant.

This was just one study but it made me think, so I did a bit more research. In both Canada and the US, the FDA gives a 20% leeway for the accuracy of the claims on Nutrition Facts Labels. With this in mind, it is legal to claim that a 120-calorie snack contains only 100 calories (not a huge deal), but also that a 600-calorie meal can be said to have only 500 calories (which is a little troublesome). Additionally, I explored the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) website and found some discouraging information:

The CFIA is responsible for the enforcement of the Food and Drugs Act as it relates to food. No new resources have been identified to support the implementation of these Regulations. While it is the responsibility of the industry to comply with regulatory requirements, Health Canada and the CFIA are committed to facilitating the implementation of these Regulations in a manner that will retain the confidence of health protection professionals and consumers in the validity of the nutrition and health claims, while respecting the resources that CFIA has for enforcement.

The challenges for industry in generating product-specific nutrient data for nutrition labelling are recognized. Industry is responsible for ensuring the accuracy of label values and may choose the risk management strategy best suited to the food(s) to be labelled.

This is a long-winded explanation that essentially means: Yes, there is a 20% margin of error on Nutrition Facts Labels, but no, we do not verify every label as each "industry is responsible for ensuring the accuracy of label values". I dug a bit deeper and found an article in the US News which stated that a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 90% of a sample of 300 randomly audited Nutrition Facts Labels in the mid-1990s were compliant in regards to the acceptable 20% variance to actual levels. This is a small sigh of relief, but it is an extremely small sample size and the results are from 2 decades ago.

The same article goes on to state that a 2010 study published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs found that among 3,700 people ages 37 to 50, those who read Nutrition Facts Labels (but did not exercise) were more likely to lose weight than those who did not read food labels but did exercise. In other words, the awareness of a food's approximate nutritional content, regardless of inaccuracies, does appear to influence eating behaviours in a beneficial way. So, when used responsibly as a guide, even inaccurate food labels can be beneficial.

In Summary

  • Calorie counting can ease the mind, but it is very difficult to be accurate. If you are going solely based on Nutrition Facts Labels, your daily 2000 calorie diet could easily be closer to 2400 calories, and this is without considering other confounding factors like serving sizes and genetics. Food label numbers should only be used as a guide, not as concrete information.
  • The most valuable information on food labels is found on the back, and ingredients section is most telling: Do your best to avoid products whose main ingredients are sugars, flours and anything "artificial".
  • The easiest way to avoid having to relying on inaccurate information is to make sure the majority of your diet comes from unprocessed, whole food. Do your best to avoid the middle aisles at the grocery store and you'll be well on your way to better nutrition.
  • Food Labels are great guides to help people make responsible nutrition decisions, but like most other things in this world, the information should be taken with a grain of salt. As always, be curious, be objective, and you'll be ahead of the game!

For more information on food labels and product education, check out these posts:

Organic food or Gimmick food?

Marketing 101: What Does The Organic Label Mean?

Organic Meat: Worth the Cost?

How To Read Nutrition Facts Labels

Nutrition 101: A Simple Guide to Food Prep

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