Food labels have made tremendous improvements over the years in terms of honesty, clarity, and standardized information. In 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture requested brands to include more information on their labels.
But what do they have to tell you now? And what else can marketing and branding hide?
The anatomy of a food label
The FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services enforce federal food labeling laws. Apart from the typical nutrition labeling and list of ingredients, the products must have the following:
- All nutritional information (example: “20% vitamin C”)
- Nutrients to ensure health-related claims (example: “good source of vitamin C”)
- Claims of “light” or “light” must substantiate that claim on the label
- Any spices, added flavors, or added colors
- All chemical preservatives
- Whether it contains raw fruits, vegetables or meat
Despite the extensive labeling laws, food companies still spend a lot of money fooling consumers with (legal) false claims.
Common false claims to watch out for include:
- Promoting whole grains and health when the item is full of sugar
- Unrealistic portion sizes to make calories look low (who only drinks half a can of soda?)
- Eligible for “multigrain” if the ingredients are highly processed or refined grains
- Claim “natural” when the finished product is full of chemicals and highly processed (products can use the claim “natural” if at some point they started with a natural source such as an apple).
- “No added sugar” can still mean that the item is full of natural sugar (here you can see fruit snacks)
- Using different or chemical names for sugar (dextran, malt powder, etc.)
Buying local produce from farmers markets
Because homemade products aren’t sold to the masses, they don’t need to have nutrition labels. Consumers buy these products at their own risk, knowing that they have not been officially tested for ingredients, production processes, safety or nutritional information.
If you happen to buy a product that makes you seriously ill, you can re-file a consumer protection or personal injury claim with the seller.
Food-borne diseases and bacterial outbreaks are most commonly attributed to certain types of foods in farmers markets, including:
- fruits and vegetables
Plain old fruit, vegetables, and other unprocessed items usually come from farms. It is up to every company to take out product liability insurance.
If a product that you buy is harmful to you or your family, you can file a lawsuit. However, speak to an attorney first to see if the money you would get back is worth it. For example, if you serve salads to a large number of people who are all making them sick (like at a wedding), it may well be worth the time and money a case requires.
Buy in a restaurant
Restaurants with more than 20 locations (chain restaurants) must legally display calorie information for each item or meal. This can be shown on:
- Online or printed menus
- Menu boards
- Cards or labels in food display cases
However, mom and pop restaurants and local eateries don’t have to reveal the secrets of how much butter goes into their delicious dishes.
COVID changes to food labels
To help with supply chain disruptions and keep delivery times as short as possible, the FDA has allowed flexibility in labeling during the pandemic. This means companies can make “minor formula adjustments” without changing their current names.
The same goes for vending machines. Certain labels on vending machine items have been given flexibility to ensure that products are delivered on time. These temporary rules will be removed after the pandemic ends, and companies will have ample time to update their labels.