What Does a Food Label Really Mean?

The FDA recently posted a public service message on its website reminding consumers that labels for most packaged foods marketed in the U.S. must disclose in simple-to-understand terms when they are made with a “major food allergen.”  Rhonda Kane, a registered dietitian and consumer safety officer at the FDA, recommended that consumers “first look for the ‘Contains’ statement and if [the] allergen is listed, put the product back on the shelf.”  Even if the “no Contains” statement is present, Kane stated that  it was “very important to read the entire ingredient list to see if [the] allergen is present. If you see its name even once, it’s back to the shelf for that food too.” 

Some manufacturers voluntarily include a “may contain” statement on their labels when there is a chance that a food allergen could be present.  Consumers need to be aware that a manufacturer might use the same equipment to make different products. Even after cleaning this equipment, a small amount of an allergen (such as peanuts) that was used to make one product (such as cookies) may become part of another product (such as crackers). In this case, the cracker label might state “may contain peanuts.”

In this case, the “may contain” has a meaning that relies upon the consumer to distinguish whether the food product is okay to consume.  Its easy to fall into the trap of buying a product based on what the label says; the trouble beigins when the labels have almost no meaning and are used as a marketing factor.  As a result, the labels are increasingly the subject of consumer ire and litigation.  While federal agencies move to corral some of the more egregious offenders, the FDA  has demonstrated even for the same ingredient, i.e. high fructose corn syrup, that how an ingredient is viewed from product to product is open to interpretation and influenced by other factors.

For instance, “made with real fruit” and “made with whole grains” read on a label as healthy choices, yet various products on the market contain scant amount of the articles in question.  “Made with real fruit” implies that the food article contains fruit, yet items such as Betty Crocker Strawberry Fruit Gushers are made with a minimal amount of pear concentrate – the real fruit – and not with strawberries.  The main ingredients are sugars and corn syrup.  Likewise, “made with whole grains” is appearing on more and more labels because of public health advice advocating consumption of whole grains.  Thomas’® Hearty Grain English muffins, contain a token amount of whole wheat flour.  The muffins ingredient list unbleached enriched wheat flour (which is ordinary wheat flour, containing flour, malted barley flour, reduced iron, niacin, thiamin mononitrate (Vitamin B1), riboflavin (Vitamin B2), and folic acid) first, followed by water, and then whole wheat flour.

“Organic” and “natural” are also increasingly the subject of litigation as well.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic seal indicates that a multi-ingredient product contains at least 95% organic ingredients; however, this certification process is entirely voluntary.  Natural is a term bandied about in foods, but general applicability is via USDA regulation in the meat and poultry industry.  For other food articles, the FDA’s definition of “natural” is “that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.”  It’s not surprising that potential loopholes have been found in the regulations for these marketing buzzwords.  Consumers must be ever careful of purchasing items advertising the latest health fad.