What You Don’t Know About Food Labeling Could Undermine Your Health

Learn more about the nuances of food marketing and what front-of-package labels may not be telling you.

By Megan Senger
Feb 13, 2015

Which is better: A “natural” product or an “organic” one? Eggs from “cage-free,” “pastured” or “vegetarian-fed” chickens? “Grass-fed” or “grass-finished” beef? “Low-fat” or “reduced-fat” snacks? Or do these terms mean anything at all?

Have your clients ever asked you these kinds of questions? There is a lot of confusion out there about what food product labels mean. Terms like “gluten-free, fat-free, all-natural” and “GMO-free” imply health benefits, yet they sometimes promote processed foods full of undesirable ingredients such as refined sugars, trans fats and chemical additives.

With increasing consumer awareness of how certain processed foods may impact health, you may find yourself needing specific answers about food labeling, product claims and the regulatory gray areas frequently used in food marketing.

This article explores how front-of-package marketing and persuasion practices affect our food behaviors and often trip us up when we are authentically trying to do good for ourselves and our families. It reviews the neuromarketing of food and the construction of “health halos” around less-than-healthy products. Finally, it lists practical strategies for teaching clients the differences between marketing hype and the real deal. Here’s what lies behind the healthy aura that marketing creates on the packages of processed foods.

THE FOOD MARKETING MACHINE

In the United States, every third adult (35.7%) is obese, as is almost every fifth youth (17%) (Ogden et al. 2012). So the rise in health claim labels on food packages has not correlated with a healthier population. Why?

There’s good reason to be skeptical about claims on food labels, according to Yoni Freedhoff, MD, a physician, professor and weight loss specialist in Ottawa, Ontario. “If the front of a package needs to convince you of the healthfulness of its contents, there’s a darn good chance its contents aren’t healthful,” says Freedhoff, author of The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work (Harmony 2014).

In fact, the average consumer makes over 200 food-related decisions each day, with many of them made on “mindless auto-pilot,” as researchers have described it (Wansink & Sobal 2007).

In stark contrast to consumer “mindlessness” is the sophisticated and savvy juggernaut of the food marketing industry. The food industry is among the top advertisers in the U.S. media market (Chandon & Wansink 2012). In 2012, $116 million was spent marketing healthy fruits and vegetables. That sounds pretty impressive, until you consider that $4.6 billion was spent marketing fast food (Orciari 2012). And marketers have become increasingly likely to make heavy use of health claims on the front of food packages.

HOW BRANDING AFFECTS ENJOYMENT

Why do food manufacturers spend so much money on marketing, food packaging and labels? Because branding works.

Product names and product descriptions have both been shown to influence buying decisions. The name of a food has a strong influence on the degree to which consumers expect the product to be tasty, filling or fattening. These expectations, however, are often misaligned with reality (Chandon & Wansink 2012).

A well-known brand or alluring product description also impacts taste expectations, experiences and retrospective evaluations of the eating experience (Chandon & Wansink 2012). Science has shown that items with “evocative, descriptive” names (such as “Succulent Italian Seafood Filet”) attract a greater number of positive comments and are rated as more appealing, tasty and caloric than otherwise identical offerings with more pedestrian names, such as “Seafood Filet” (Wansink, van Ittersum & Painter 2005).

Bottom line: The prime real estate for labeling is the front-of-package area that stands out as consumers stroll through the shopping aisles. However, according to the Food and Drug Administration’s own consumer research, people are less likely to check the (arguably more accurate) Nutrition Facts Label on the back or side of food packaging when front-of-pack labeling exists (FDA 2009).

THE HEALTH HALO EFFECT

Research tells us people think foods with front-of-package health claims (“rich in omega-3,” “supports immunity,” “low-fat,” etc.) have fewer calories and are better for their health. This phenomenon is known as the “organic aura hypothesis” or the “health halo effect.” It’s an area extensively studied by Brian Wansink, PhD, a marketing professor and behavioral economics expert at Cornell University in New York state, who directs the university’s Food and Brand Lab. Wansink is the author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (William Morrow 2014).

Front-of-package claims “cause us to believe the food product is much more healthy than it actually is,” says Wansink. And health claim labels like “free-range, gluten-free, pesticide-free” and “antioxidant-laden” cause consumers to think, “‘The more [of this food] we eat, the better.’ People typically eat 44% more when there is a health claim on the front label,” he adds.

The practical effects of the health halo effect have been bluntly summarized by author Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. She wrote in her blog, Food Politics: “Health claims sell food products. People like buying products with a ‘health aura,’ no matter how poorly the health claim is supported by science. Science is irrelevant here. Marketing is what’s relevant” (Nestle 2011).

Bottom line: Consumers usually believe front-of-package claims, perceive them to be government-endorsed and use them to ignore the (debatably more evidence-based) Nutrition Facts Label on the back or side of the packaging (Nestle & Ludwig 2010).

NEUROLOGICAL RESPONSES TO FOOD MARKETING

The relatively new science of neuromarketing examines how our brains react to marketing stimuli, as measured by brain scans (Duke University 2010). Neuroimaging studies suggest that we may like or dislike a food based on marketing, and not just on social cues (Chandon & Wansink 2012).

One recent study—the first to examine how neural response to food commercials differs from the response to other stimuli—focused on 30 adolescents. Researchers had the teens watch a television show with advertisement breaks. The ads showed branded products—some foods (such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s) and some nonfoods (such as AT&T and Ford). The teens’ brain responses were measured using an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner.

Scans showed that areas of the brain linked with reward, attention and cognition were more active during commercials associated with foods. And the teens subsequently remembered the food ads better than the nonfood commercials, suggesting that food-related marketing efforts are better at getting into the minds of young people (Gearhardt et al. 2014).

“The fMRI research is very powerful because it shows how we respond to food marketing on an emotional level, the same way that we respond to anything else that we find rewarding. We can’t just ignore the marketing or reason away the effects,” says Jennifer Harris, PhD, MBA, who was one of the study’s authors and is a marketing executive turned researcher at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University.

LABELING REGULATIONS AND LIMITATIONS

In America, most food labels are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In very broad terms, FDA jurisdiction includes produce and packaged foods, while USDA oversight relates to animal-related products (dairy, meat, eggs) and organic food production (plants and animals). The labeling regulations of each agency are publicly available, but they are also extensive and frequently bewildering.

So how can you help your clients navigate the confusing world of food labels? We asked our experts what they considered the most misleading and the most useful terms among commonly used front-of-package claims. Here are their top picks:

NATURAL

The word “natural” helps to sell over $40 billion a year in food products (Ferdman 2014). Nearly 60% of people look for the word “natural” when they shop for food, and about two-thirds believe it means that a processed food has no artificial ingredients, pesticides or genetically modified organisms (CRNRC 2014). In reality, the term is largely devoid of meaning.

When describing items under FDA jurisdiction (produce and many packaged foods), “natural” and its variants (including “all-natural”) are essentially meaningless. “This claim is not regulated by FDA, and thus one needs to carefully inspect the product to ensure it supports good health,” says Joy Dubost, PhD, RD, a registered dietitian and food scientist in Washington, DC.

When applied to items under USDA jurisdiction (animal products), “natural” has some meaning: Meat, poultry and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards on farm practices and does not require the prudent use of antibiotics; nor does it bar the use of growth hormones (EWG 2011).

One term that does mean something is “naturally raised.” Described as a “voluntary standard,” the term indicates that livestock used for meat have been raised entirely without growth promotants and antibiotics (except for ionophores) and have never been fed animal byproducts (USDA AMS 2009). The term does not address animal welfare or the use of eco-friendly farming practices.

ORGANIC

In America, sales of organic products are increasing, to the tune of $35.1 billion annually across 17,000 organic-food businesses (USDA AMS 2014). Use of the “organic” label is regulated on most American food products (seafood is a notable exception; the U.S. has no organic standards for aquaculture).

What does “organic” mean? Irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides and genetically modified organisms cannot be used on crops that bear the “USDA Organic” seal. For livestock, the logo verifies that producers have “met animal health and welfare standards [e.g., letting animals graze on pasture], did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors” (USDA 2012; USDA AMS 2013). The program does not address food safety or nutrition.

Manufacturers may use several variations of the label, including “100% Organic” (all ingredients and processing aids must be organic); “Organic” (contains 95% or more organic ingredients); and “Made with Organic . . . ” (at least 70% of the ingredients are organic) (USDA AMS 2012).

“Organic” should not to be confused with the words “beyond organic” or “better than/more than organic,” which are unregulated terms.

LOW-FAT, FAT-FREE AND REDUCED-FAT

Health claims and food labels related to a product’s fat content help sell a whopping $64 billion of products each year (Ferdman 2014). However, such claims and labels can be deceptive in terms of both their legal meaning and the implied health benefits.

First, the regulations: “Fat-free” foods must have less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving; “low-fat” foods cannot have more than 3 g of fat per serving (Web MD 2014; FDA 2014). In practice, this may not amount to much. “Low-fat products are, on average, only 11% lower in calories than the regular versions,” says Wansink. “Manufacturers take the fat out and replace it with sugar.”

Meanwhile, “reduced-fat” foods must have at least 25% less fat than regular versions of those foods (Web MD 2014). The key point is that “reduced” is relative only to the original product of comparison, not to a healthful standard, says New York–based food expert Teri Mosey, who holds advanced degrees in exercise physiology and holistic nutrition and has expertise in both Eastern and scientific health philosophies and culinary studies.

Interestingly, manufacturers can declare that foods are “saturated fat–free” or have “zero saturated fat” even if they do contain saturated fat. Products with less than 0.5 g of saturated fat and less than 0.5 g of trans fatty acids may use the claim. In other words, a product with 0.4 g of saturated fat can legally be called a “zero saturated fat” food.

Even if a food is truly devoid of fat, there is still a bigger picture. “Just because it is free of fat does not mean it’s free of calories,” says Dubost. “It is not a green light to eat more. In fact, some fat-free products can be higher in calories due to added sugars or refined grains.”

GLUTEN-FREE

In August 2013, the FDA set a gluten limit of less than 20 parts per million for foods that carry the label “gluten-free,” “no gluten,” “free of gluten” or “without gluten.” But despite this term’s current trendiness, nutritional needs vary and consumers should proceed with caution. “‘Gluten-free’ by no means equates to a healthier choice,” cautions Mosey.

LIVESTOCK AND POULTRY LABELS

GRASS-FED

This USDA-regulated term refers to ruminant animals (such as cattle or sheep) that were only ever fed mother’s milk and forage (grazed or stored hay, grass or other greens). The animals must have had access to pasture “during the growing season” (USDA AMS 2007). A concurrent “USDA Process Verified” shield on the product package indicates that inspectors have verified the claim. If there is no shield, they have not (GreenerChoices 2014a).

The label does not indicate any limitations on the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides (USDA AMS 2013). It also does not indicate year-round access to pasture (these items are addressed by the USDA’s organic program and, to a greater degree, by third-party animal-welfare certifications).

“Grass-fed” should not be confused with “grass-finished” or “green-fed,” which are unregulated terms (AWA 2013).

FREE-RANGE

This USDA-regulated label indicates that a poultry flock was provided shelter and unlimited access to food, fresh water, and access to the outdoors throughout the production cycle (USDA AMS 2013). However, the quality or size of the outside area and duration of outdoor access are not specified. When used to describe any species aside from poultry, this term has no specific legal or regulated definition (AWA 2013). Note that “free-roaming” is not a regulated term (GreenerChoices 2014b).

CAGE-FREE

This indicates that a flock of birds could freely roam in an indoor or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during the production cycle (USDA AMS 2013). This term does not explain whether or not the birds had any outdoor access, if any outdoor access included pasture or simply a bare lot, or if they were raised in overcrowded conditions (AWA 2013).

NO ANTIBIOTICS ADDED

This USDA-regulated term may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if the producer provides sufficient supporting documentation, but there is no system in place to verify a claim of this type. Note that the term “antibiotic-free” has no regulatory definition.

NO ADDED HORMONES

The USDA regulates use of this term on pork or poultry. However, the claim is redundant to the law: Hormones are simply not allowed in the raising of any hogs, poultry or goats (USDA FSIS 2013). Therefore, the claim cannot be used on labels of products from these animals unless it is followed by the words “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

NO HORMONES ADMINISTERED

This USDA-regulated term applies to beef and dairy products. This claim may be allowed on beef products if the producer provides sufficient documentation that no hormones have been used in raising the animals (Nestle & Ludwig 2010).

The terms “hormone-free” and “no hormones” are not permitted on the labels of beef, pork or poultry products, since animal proteins contain naturally occurring hormones regardless of production methods.

WHAT TO TELL YOUR FITNESS CLIENTS

Food marketers can legally use a wide assortment of words, symbols and health claims to make a product with questionable nutritional value seem nourishing. It’s almost impossible to teach your time-pressed clients about every one of them. Instead, our experts recommend these broad principles as practical solutions:

Beware the hype. Anything “healthful” that you see on the front of a food package puts you more at risk of overeating and of misjudging the true healthfulness of the product, says Wansink. “We’ve found that the least-healthy products tend to have the most nutrition claims on the front,” adds Harris, the Yale University researcher.

Heed the health halo. Healthy-sounding labels often inadvertently thwart our dietary efforts, says Wansink. When we seek out foods with health claims or weight loss–oriented labels (such as “low-fat”), “we believe we are sacrificing something in exchange, such as taste,” he argues. This causes us to overcompensate and overeat. Instead, Wansink argues, it’s better to just get what we really wanted in the first place, and simply eat a small portion.

Read the back. “Consumers should ignore the nutrition claims on the front of product packages and read the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient list on the back instead,” Harris says.

Anticipate hyperbole. Many health claims on package fronts are exaggerated and/or based on circumstantial inferences—not hard science. “Front-of-package claims promise far more than the medical evidence would agree they might deliver,” says Freedhoff.

Use the Web. For clients with smartphones, it’s never been easier to figure out what a term on a package truly means (or doesn’t!). Try the WSPA Eat Humane app, which navigates food labels in relation to animal-welfare issues. Or visit GreenerChoices Eco-Labels Center (www.greenerchoices.org), a website with comprehensive explanations of over 150 governmental and third-party food labels. Finally, Freedhoff recommends the Fooducate app. This allows consumers to scan a product’s barcode, view the item’s health “report card” and obtain suggestions of better alternatives.

Eat whole foods as often as possible. Choose foods from nature in their whole state, recommends Mosey. Freedhoff concurs: “A person’s far more likely to improve [his or her] health by seeking out more produce and fewer products, regardless of those products’ claims.”

Find a food philosophy. “We get wrapped up in this reductionist approach of counting calories, grams of macronutrients, looking for a particular vitamin . . . and we miss the point of eating and our relationship to food,” says Mosey. “The bigger picture is actually viewing food as nourishment, a way to connect with life and not a chore to feed our grumbling stomachs.”

Buy and eat local products. Encourage clients to eat food grown by reputable local farmers, whose businesses they can visit and with whom they can develop a relationship over time. Your clients can also explore farmers’ markets, join a CSA (a regular food delivery service from a local farm) or a food co-op, says Mosey. If clients cannot source local product or the season doesn’t allow it, help them to make a transition to healthier versions of packaged and processed foods. Show them smart swapouts and explain why such products are good choices.

Recognize the exceptions. Once in a while, an “all-natural” option may be ideal. “There are some great, healthy products out there that have no third-party [or ‘USDA Organic’] verification, simply because the processes involved can be time-consuming and expensive,” says Gary Collins, MS, a former FDA special agent turned health advocate, and author of The Organic Caveman: How to Make Natural and Sustainable Food Choices for Weight Loss and Health (Second Nature 2014).This is often the case with small farms that follow organic principles but cannot legally use the term “organic” without paying for USDA certification. By default they must use a nonregulated product description such as “natural” instead.

Find a focus. With so many labels on every kind of food, it’s hard to know what to focus on. To cut through the confusion, Nestle says, people must pick their issue. “Decide what’s important to you and ask for that particular label.”

For Collins, who is based in California and Washington state, the choice is clear. “For me, there are only two important things to look for: the ‘USDA Organic’ seal, and the ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’ seal. To me, these are the two terms that hold the most legitimacy. I could go into a long-winded explanation why, but I have just found these two are the hardest to get around by food manufacturers. They are not perfect, but they are the best we have today.”

LIVING BEYOND LABELS

Health-related food labeling retains a strong influence on consumer perception, ingestion and likely purchase. So what’s the big-picture solution?
“For people who care about their health, my advice is to eat real food and not buy packages with health claims on them,” says Nestle. “Those are marketing terms designed to make people think the products are healthier, whether or not they really are.”

In Mosey’s opinion, food can be a space to heal and a way to create a life of vitality. In her words, “There is a way to live in a modern age of technology and still nurture ourselves through food.” By helping your clients to understand—and perhaps live beyond—food labels, you support them in doing just that.

Labels on Genetically Altered Foods

Genetic modification is a technique that changes the genetic makeup of cells to enhance a desirable trait in a plant or animal. The result is a genetically modified organism (GMO).

GMO disclosure labels on transgenic food products are currently required in 64 countries worldwide (CFS 2013). In the U.S., bills calling for mandatory labels on GMO foods have been created in 26 states (Goad 2013), although none have become law except in Vermont, and even that decree is being challenged in court (Entine 2014).

As recently as the November 2014 midterm elections, voters in Colorado and Oregon opted not to make GMO labeling mandatory in their states. Labeling measures were similarly defeated in California and Washington states in 2012 and 2013. Proponents of GMO labeling laws have noted that millions of preelection promotional dollars were spent by corporate interests opposed to mandatory GMO labels—including Monsanto and D


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