At Steve’s PaleoGoods, we encourage our customers to “check the deck” before buying pre packaged products. A simple flip of the package to read the list ensures your food does not contain junk you aren’t looking for like added sugars, preservatives, coloring, flavoring and chemicals. By law, the ingredients and nutritional facts can be found on the back of all consumer packaged goods.
But let’s take a moment to talk about the FRONT of packaged food. Colorful labels and specific claims are made on millions of products found in the grocery store to influence point of sale decisions and make products pop off the shelf.
If you are going to believe any claims written on the front of food packaging, you have to be sure the back BACKS IT UP. The real estate on the font of packaged food should be used to educate consumers, but buyer beware. Just like anything you read on the internet, some of the claims made on the packaging can be misleading or even (GASP) untrue.
WHO IS THE BOSS?
In the United States, we have two governing bodies over the food industry. We have the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The FDA regulates how most prepared foods are processed, packaged and labeled. Think of your breads, cereals, cans, frozen products, snacks and drinks as their turf.
The USDA is the federal department responsible for farming and agriculture and therefore regulates labels for meat and poultry products sold in store and certified organic products. Since much of the “organic” certification deals with how a food has been grown, it makes sense that the USDA has the oversight.
The FDA has jurisdiction over most of the packaging you see on shelf but has no formal approval process of food labeling before a product hits the shelf. But there are certain FDA guidelines and requirements that competitors within the food industry and health-conscious consumers will demand adherence to. When alerted to misleading claims on food packaging, the FDA will launch an investigation.
THE MUST HAVES
All food for sale at retail and mail order must be fully labeled with nutrition facts and ingredient lists. The exception to this rule are whole foods like fruits and meats, products like tea and coffee with non-signifiant amounts of nutrients and products made by extremely small food companies that do not make claims.
When in compliance with the FDA, the facts contained in the ingredient deck should correspond to what is said on the front of the packaging.
In addition to the ingredient list and nutrition facts, all packaged foods requiring labeling must have a few basic pieces of information on the label like the name of the food, the packer or distributor (which is often different from the manufacturer) and any required allergy labeling.
Now that we have the musts defined, let’s talk about the more serious claims made by some packaged for companies. They basically fall into three categories.
The first are health claims. “May reduce the risk of heart disease.” That’s a pretty big statement and needs to be backed up by more than the ingredient deck. To use this claim, the food company must make a petition to the FDA based on an extensive review of scientific evidence. This could be a long and costly process.
The next type of claim deals with nutrient content. The Percent Daily Value (DV) on the nutrition facts label is a guide to the nutrients in one serving of food. An example of a nutrient content claim is stating on the front of the package “good source of calcium.” To state that a product is a “good source” of calcium, this nutrient must provide 10% of the DV. To say “excellent” source, calcium must be 20%.
It’s really up to the consumer to decide what’s good or even excellent. By the FDA guidelines, one would have to consume 5 servings of an “excellent source” to meet the recommended DV.
The last type are structure/function claims. Things like “promotes bone health” and “antioxidants maintain cell integrity” need no pre approval form the FDA. These claims do however require a disclaimer somewhere on the packaging like that FDA has not evaluated the claim. The disclaimer must also state that the product is not intended to “diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” The FDA must be notified about the claim in writing within 30 days of the product hitting the market.
Here’s where some food companies have some big marketing fun. Packages are packed with words to convince consumers they are making a healthier choice.
The word NATURAL can be used if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. If a company uses the word natural and contains any of the above, it will take time for someone to report them and the FDA to conduct an investigation. It’s up for consumers to use good judgment and educate themselves on what is in the food they consume. Many forms of sugar occur in nature but that doesn’t mean products containing high fructose corn syrup should be labeled as natural. And some are.
The guidelines on sugar-free and no added sugars are more defined, but LIGHTLY SWEETENED is another misleading mark used to suggest less sugar content. Often times these products are loaded with artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols to reduce calorie content and boost flavor. Again, check the deck if you’re trying to steer clear of chemicals.
Educate yourself on much grain and fruit needs to be in a packaged food to bear the claims MADE WITH WHOLE GRAIN or MADE WITH REAL FRUIT. Flour can be the first ingredient listed in a product claiming to be whole grain made as long as there’s a trace of grain in the package. Claiming something contains real fruit is just fine as long as it’s got some small quantity of fruit, and it is often different from the fruit pictured on the package. Enter stage right, artificial flavors and colors.
HEALTHY is another grey area. The FDA has a long complicated list of nutritional guidelines about fat and sugar content that a product must meet to boast healthy on the packaging, but again, they aren’t policing. It’s up to competitors and consumers to alert them of wrong doing. It does happen, the FDA recently forced a popular fruit and nut bar to stop using the word HEALTHY on packaging and in advertising for not meeting the set criteria.
Claims for ORGANIC and GLUTEN-FREE are more regulated and made only when a certification is in place. To bear the USDA organic seal, a product has to be 95% organic and certified to be grown appropriately. Processed foods can claim MADE WITH ORGANIC INGREDIENTS if 70% of them are organically produced.
GLUTEN-FREE is the claim most regulated by the USDA and ensures the product contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten from all sources including cross contamination. Products bearing a NO GLUTEN claim are simply made with ingredients that do contain gluten, but they have not been certified or tested.
The answer is simple. JUST EAT REAL FOOD. The Paleo Prescription is an easy one to understand and follow: eat meat, veggies, fruits, little starch, healthy fats and no SUGAR! Shop the perimeter of the store for whole foods.
There’s a reason whole foods don’t require labels, because it’s obvious what is contained in them. When selecting packaged goods, don’t be misled by front label claims and commit to reading the ingredient list before you purchase. Buying from consumers you can trust like Steve’s PaleoGoods is another way to keep yourself additive and preservative free. Give us a deck check and you’ll see—we can BACK up the no junk added promise we make on the front of our package.