When you decide to eat a packaged food of any kind, the only factor you have to go on to determine its contents is the nutrition label. These food labels are supposed to be there to help you make healthy, informed decisions about what you eat, in terms of not only the calories, sodium and fat content, but also the ingredients.
When Lisa Lillien, the voice behind Hungry-Girl.com, had several samples of food tested in independent labs, the results were not consistent with what was printed on the labels.
How could this be?
A very good question. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees federal labeling rules for 80 percent of foods, and this is a large part of the problem. A report released in October 2008 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave the FDA a failing grade when it comes to preventing false and misleading labeling.
The FDA is Not Testing Label Compliance
According to the report, the FDA “has not kept pace” with their enforcement efforts as the number of food products has increased dramatically in recent years. Amazingly, it’s revealed that the FDA has not done random sampling to test the accuracy of Nutrition Facts labels since the 1990s!
Further, as reported by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, even among labels that are suspected of being inaccurate, only very limited testing is done. And as for foreign food firms, the FDA inspected only 95 out of tens of thousands of them in 2007, and only in 11 out of 150 countries.
But wait -- there’s more!
The GAO also reported that the FDA does not track the correction of labeling violations, which means even if a food manufacturer is known to be using inaccurate labels, no one is checking up to make sure the problem is fixed.
Adding to the problem, the FDA’s own guidelines put the onus of accurate labeling on the manufacturer, and recommend not sampling the actual finished product to test for accuracy but rather to base it on product composition (i.e. a recipe). As their Web site states:
“FDA's continuing policy since the 1970s assigns the manufacturer the responsibility for assuring the validity of a product label's stated nutrient values.
Accordingly, the source of the data used to calculate nutrition label values is the prerogative of the manufacturer, but FDA's policy recommends that the nutrient values for labeling be based on product composition, as determined by laboratory analysis of each nutrient.”
How Likely is it the Nutrition Info Listed on Your Favorite Foods is Wrong?
This is truly anyone’s guess, as even the FDA does not have reliable data on the number of label’s they’ve reviewed for accuracy, according to GAO.
There was one report a few years back in which the FDA implied that more than 28,000 food labels were checked in a 14-month period. However, they only checked to see whether or not the Nutrition Facts panel was present, rather than whether or not it was accurate.
Simply checking to see whether a Nutrition Facts panel is present on a food’s label is hardly the information necessary to help Americans make healthier food choices.
Last year “Good Morning America” also hired a lab to test a dozen packaged food products to see if the nutrients matched the labels. All 12 products had label inaccuracies of some sort and three were actually off by more than 20 percent on items like sodium and total fat.
But even if the label is present and accurate, it must be more than 20 percent off in order for it to violate federal law, and government food labs have a 10 percent margin of error. This means an item labeled as having 400 calories can legally have up to 480 calories, plus there is the 10 percent testing margin of error.
There are other food-label loopholes to watch out for as well, including:
- Ingredients called “incidental additives” do not have to be listed anywhere on labels. These include substances transferred to food via packaging and "ingredients of other ingredients" that are present at "insignificant levels" and have no "technical or functional effect."
- A label can state it is “free from” a substance if there is less than 0.5 grams of it per serving. So a product that claims to be gluten-free or trans-fat-free can actually contain up to 0.5 grams per serving. This may seem insignificant, but if you eat more than one serving (as many people do) it will add up fast.
- Undesirable ingredients are often “hidden” on labels. A classic example of this is with the dangerous food additive MSG, which is often disguised under ingredients like glutamate or glutamic acid.
- “Natural contaminants” are also allowed and present in your food. This includes things like insect parts, insect eggs, and rodent hairs.
- Many other items are also exempt from being labeled, or may be stated in a way that makes it hard to find. This includes genetically modified ingredients, irradiated ingredients, and ingredients from cloned animals.
If you purchase processed or packaged foods, the bottom line is that you simply can’t -- unless you make serious invest in some independent laboratory analyses. Of course this isn’t very practical so you can do your homework and identify a few high-quality companies and pick foods that they make and then ask them for their independent, objective third-party analysis that confirms the accuracy of their nutrition labels.
If you’d rather not have to make a trip to the lab on your way home from the supermarket, simply focus your purchases on whole foods like fresh produce, eggs and meat from healthy sources, then prepare them at home.
Unfortunately as it stands, 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food goes toward processed food, of which the label inaccuracies may be most apparent.
To get better nutrition along with the greater peace of mind that comes from knowing what’s really in the food you eat, try to reverse this ratio and purchase the majority of your food in non-processed form.