The 4 Legal Ways Your Food Labels Can Mislead You

September 10, 2015 | September 10, 2015 – Warning: What’s in (or not in) your food may not be listed on its label.

And so while most Americans say they use food labels to make purchasing decisions — the Food and Drug Administration’s “Health and Diet Survey” found that 77% of Americans say they always or sometimes read labels before buying something for the first time, and a Gallup poll shows that nearly 7 in 10 say they pay either a great deal or a fair amount of attention to them — whether you can trust what’s on them is another question, some experts say.

“Food labels are totally out of control in America today,” says Susan B. Roberts, a professor of Nutrition at Tufts University and founder of the iDiet weight loss program.

MarketWatch found that a lot of what’s on food labels is exactly what it seems to be — and the FDA has done a lot in recent years to add more information. Most recently, it has proposed updates that would add more information on the link between diet and chronic diseases, as well as the amount of added sugars, potassium and vitamin D in foods. (Public comment on those updates is still invited, and interested consumers can follow the process on the FDA’s web site.)

Still, food labels can trick consumers, thanks in part to labeling rules few know or understand.

Calorie, fat and sugar content can be 20% higher than what’s on the label

Most Americans take the calorie, fat and sugar counts on food packages as fact, give or take a few calories. What few realize, however, is that it is legal for the counts on many foods to be off by 20%, meaning snacks labeled as having 100 calories may in fact have 120.

This is thanks to FDA rules for calories, fats and sugars: The government’s nutrition labeling manual notes that “the ratio between the amount obtained by laboratory analysis and the amount declared on the product label in the Nutrition Facts panel must be 120% or less.”

And since the government requires packaged foods to have at least 99% of the weight declared on the box, Roberts says, manufacturers almost have to put more in the package than is stated on the label. (This also protects consumers from getting shortchanged.)

Research shows that the calorie counts on packaged foods are frequently wrong. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that the calorie content on frozen food labels was an average of 8% higher than the label claimed.

All of this could be problematic for the millions of dieters who count calories, fat grams or their foods’ sugar content: Even if you’re vigilant, you could still be eating too much of them — though, in this case, the effect is likely most noticeable on single-serving items.

The FDA notes that its regulations “help ensure that nutrition labeling values are accurate” but that sometimes precise values are “impractical.”

Vitamin and mineral content can be 20% lower than what’s on the label

Like calorie counts, it is perfectly acceptable for vitamin levels to be off —significantly off — which means you might be getting less of the vitamins and minerals than is stated on the label.

The FDA rule says vitamins and minerals that naturally occur in food “must be present at 80% or more of the value declared on the label.” (Vitamins and minerals that are added to food, however, have to be exactly what’s claimed on the label.)

That means if a food’s label states an item has 60 mg of vitamin C in it, it’s only required to have 48 mg. If you were depending on that food for your daily dose, that could mean falling short. (That, by the way, is approximately 90 mg for men aged 18 and over and 75 mg for women).

“The nutrient content of a food can vary based on several factors such as weather conditions, soil type, and the processing that a food undergoes,” the FDA notes, and “other compliance factors include the variability generally recognized for the analytical method used and the reasonable excesses and deficiencies of declared amounts acceptable within current good manufacturing practice.”

Zero doesn’t mean zero

Products that boast “0 grams trans fat” or “no sodium” abound, but the labels may not mean what you think. FDA regulations allow small amounts of sodium, trans fat, sugar and some other substances in foods even when the label reads “free,” “zero,” “no,” “without,” or some other term meant to indicate a complete absence of the substance.

“Zero doesn’t necessarily mean zero,” says Carl Jorgensen, director of global consumer strategy for the wellness category at retail branding firm Daymon Worldwide.

Instead, says nurse and former FDA employee Michelle Katz, author of “Healthcare for Less: Getting the Care You Need Without Breaking the Bank,” the FDA gives companies allowable thresholds to claim that number for different substances. (For example, foods can be labeled as having no trans fat if they contain less than 0.5 grams per serving.) The FDA has a list of substances and guidelines on its website.

The allowable amounts are small, and Jorgensen notes that it is “almost impossible to achieve zero” and that in these small amounts, they likely do not impact health.

Still, the FDA notes that it’s a good idea to read the label even if a food claims to be free of a particular substance. If partially hydrogenated oil is listed among the ingredients, for example, the product will contain a small amount of trans fat, and consuming several foods that contain them can add up.

Expired food isn’t actually expired

Many consumers toss foods that are past their “expired by” or “use by” dates, thinking that these items are unsafe to eat. But that’s usually not the case—and, furthermore, many foods are safe (and tasty) well past their expiration dates.

That’s in part because the FDA leaves it up to the manufacturer to pick the expiration date it wants: It doesn’t require the companies to put “expired by,” “use by,” or “best before” dates on food at all. “This information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer,” the government notes.

Instead of getting involved when the dates are stamped on the food, the FDA takes an after-the-fact approach. “A principle of U.S. food law is that foods in U.S. commerce must be wholesome and fit for consumption,” the FDA says. “A product that is dangerous to consumers would be subject to potential action by the FDA to remove it from commerce regardless of any date printed on a label.”

Expiration dates often benefit food companies, experts say. “Expiration dates are a sales tool — they get things to turn on the shelf,” says Jorgensen. Companies also use them to indicate the peak freshness of foods, which helps them communicate when a product might taste its best.

But the dates can nevertheless lead consumers to “believe, mistakenly, that date labels are signals of a food’s microbial safety,” write the authors of “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America,” a joint research project between the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Consequently, the report’s authors say, we throw out tons of perfectly good food . Indeed, Americans waste $165 billion of food each year — with some experts estimating that as much as 40% of the food in America gets tossed or left to rot.

Plenty of foods won’t last forever — particularly fresh foods like meat, eggs and milk — though almost all of them are probably good for a day or two (and often more) after their “use by” date, which is when the manufacturer of the product thinks the item is at its peak quality, or “sell by” date, which is when the manufacturer suggests a store sell the item by.

The existence of a use-by date on a packaged food product, meanwhile, doesn’t protect the company from litigation if the product harms a consumer.

Five common foods that (almost) never expire

  • Honey. Thanks in part to its low moisture content, high acidity and the presence of hydrogen peroxide, honey can last for centuries. Modern archaeologists have discovered pots of preserved honey in ancient Egyptian tombs.
  • Sugar. Store white sugar in a sealed, moisture-free bag, and it can have an indefinite shelf life thanks to its resistance to microbial growth. Even if your sugar gets lumpy and hard, it’s still safe to eat.
  • Liquor. Left unopened and stored away from high heat, basic spirits like rum, tequila, vodka and whiskey can last for decades, thanks in part to their high alcohol content.
  • Vinegar. Vinegar can last indefinitely if kept in a cool spot like a dark pantry. Indeed, white distilled vinegars “remain virtually unchanged for an almost indefinite period” and other vinegars may change in color and clarity but, “the change is generally in appearance only, not taste,” the Heinz Vinegar site says. Bragg, another brand of vinegar, notes that its vinegar “is safe, usable and effective for an indefinite period if kept out of direct sunlight.”
  • Salt. Pure salt doesn’t have an expiration date, though the addition of ingredients like iodine to salt may make it expire sooner, salt maker Morton Salt reveals.

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