A plea for clarity in FDA labeling

Food labels can be misleading and still follow the law

Recently, I found myself staring at the ingredients list on the back of a pint of chocolate ice cream: milk, cream, sugar, egg yolk, and cocoa powder. Rarely do we see such short ingredients lists on manufactured foods, yet this ice cream, by Haagen-Dazs and aptly named five, is absolutely delicious. In fact, the ice cream’s ingredients list is used as an advertisement itself, incorporated onto the front in a cute little “front-of-package label”.

Misleading labels

In the case of five, the ingredients listed on the front of the ice cream pint also match those listed on the back. But many other food products use their front-of-package labels to mislead customers. For example, when brightly packaged frosted cereals for children place labels that say “less sugar” on their boxes, one ought to think — less than what? Well they don’t say, and that’s the point. In recent years, companies who target children with misleading front-of-package labeling practices have come under heavy FDA scrutiny.

Still, the FDA has fallen short when it comes to labels targeted at discerning, adult customers. Let’s take the “fortified with vitamins and minerals” label as our first example. Some packages have “fortified with iron” labels. The type of iron that foods are fortified with, however, comes in a form that our bodies can’t utilize — a neutral charge state. The FDA knows this, yet iron-fortified labels persist.

Here’s another example of a misleading label that the FDA tolerates: “natural”. The FDA has a legal definition of natural products, but the definition is not especially reassuring. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), for example, is considered natural even though it is manufactured by a multi-step enzymatic treatment. Many so-called healthy fruit juices and whole grain breads contain HFCS for added sweetness; their labels also say the products are “natural”, but you tell me, just how natural are these HFCS-containing foods?

To be labeled “all natural”, products must contain 100% of ingredients that fit the natural-ingredient criteria. Alternatively, to be labeled “made with/from natural ingredients” a product must only contain a minimum of 70% (by weight) natural ingredients. What’s the other 30%? Well, sometimes it’s stuff like polyethylene glycol or disodium EDTA, the same chemical I use in the lab to demineralize bone specimens for soft tissue analysis. Other times it’s chemicals like diacetyl tartaric acid ester of monoglyceride (yes, that’s one ingredient) or Brilliant Blue FDF (FD&C Blue No. 1, a food dye found in ice creams, popsicles, and the like), which is produced from petroleum.

Foods that miss the cut

But many foods in the grocery store aren’t labeled with either class of “natural” labels. Is it because these manufacturers don’t buy into the labeling hype? No, it’s almost always because more than 30% of these foods aren’t made with natural ingredients. Instead, 30% or more of the ingredients are things like the examples I just gave you above.

Grocery stores aren’t the only culprits. You don’t see fast food chains slapping the “made with/from natural ingredients” label on their products, either. McDonald’s hamburgers, a favorite food item here in the U.S. for decades, were once made from an aptly named product known as “pink goo”. Pink goo is a type of meat (I shudder to use that word) that, in its original state, was so unfit for consumption, that it had to be processed with ammonium hydroxide before it could be served.

Nutrition advice back in the good ol' days

The scientist in you is now thinking, “But I can’t eat ammonia — that’s a household cleaner.” And you’re right. Pure and simple. The ammoniated hamburgers have been legal to sell to consumers without specific advertising of the ammonia ingredient because of labeling loopholes. Again, thank you, FDA (and the US Department of Agriculture, too!), for putting consumer interest first.

What about beverages?

If you can believe it, the labeling situation gets even muddier for beverages. Thanks to our government, there are more than 50 chemical additives that beer and wine labels don’t need to mention to their consumers. The FDA has no jurisdiction over alcoholic beverages,  despite the fact that when we consume alcohol, our bodies metabolize it the same way we metabolize juice or food calories. Instead, regulation falls to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). While the list of approved additives includes everything from pH stabilizers to color modifiers to flavor enhancers, only a handful (like sulfites) have to be declared on the beverage label. These additives are chemicals that you can buy from a chemical supply company, yet for some odd reason the beverages don’t come with their own Material Safety Data Sheets.

To put this in perspective, German beer must meet incredibly strict brewing criteria to be sold to German consumers (they have different standards for beer sold to the U.S.). According to the “German beer purity law,” beer brewed in Germany for sale to Germans may only be fermented from water, barley, hops, and yeast (with the occasional dash of sugar). Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for U.S. beer sold to our own citizens.

Cosmetics

Lastly, I want to briefly touch upon a recent trend in cosmetics, which are also under the purview of the FDA. In particular, a new type of cosmetics has emerged in the market recently: mineral-based makeup. Minaral-based makeups are specifically advertised under labels like “natural”, “earth/soil mineral”, and “healthier for your skin”. Bare Minerals in particular has been aggressively marketed to young consumers by its parent company, Bare Escentuals. It turns out that every ingredient listed as “natural” or “earth/soil mineral” on mineral-based make up packages can also be purchased by a CAS registry number directly from a major chemical supplier. These ingredients aren’t natural earth minerals any more than HFCS is natural corn. While chemically refined minerals are healthier for human skin than their unrefined earth mineral counterparts, this is still misleading labeling — a problem the FDA seems reluctant to fix.

A call for clarity

At this point, you’re probably sitting here like me: confused, annoyed, and starting to stare at every food item, adult beverage, and cosmetic product with a skeptical eye. Well, you should. Hopefully you’re also getting a bit peeved with the FDA, and government oversight of consumer products in general. I sure am. Personally, I don’t think I should have to scrutinize product labels or pay higher prices just to be able to feed my human engine with food that doesn’t contain things like household cleaners or pH stabilizers (our bodies are precisely tuned to regulate their own pH!).

I believe that these shortcomings with respect to consumer product labeling are examples of policy being guided by political and monetary interests. Labeling should be guided by science and the protection of public interest, pure and simple.

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3 comments

  1. I just want to point out that a given chemical has a fixed effect on human health, whether it is extracted from biomass or produced in the lab. For example, vitamin C produced in a lab would be labeled artificial. And if the makers of pink goo distilled ammonia from cat urine, they would probably call it a natural ingredient.

  2. I agree that FDA has to be more strict in this issue of misleading packaging which gives wrong information, or the better intend to give wrong information to its buyer. Because all buyers who buy that product may not have the same king of knowledge about misleading packaging.

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