Label Claims Demystified

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I stumbled on this site while looking for chemical trivia for a class I’m teaching, and I found that they have compiled some common food label claims along with their FDA definitions. In theory, you can find all of this on the FDA website, but every time I attempt that task I get bored and confused long before I’ve found any useful information — so kudos to the person who compiled this handy table. It includes many things I’ve suspected — “no sugar” and “no trans fat” actually means there is a small, but non-zero, amount of these items; “healthy” is rather arbitrary and ignores certain important aspects of nutrition — and other definitions that I’ve never given much thought.

Elsewhere on the site, there is correspondence with the FDA. The site owner wants the FDA to define (or re-define) nutritional labeling claims more precisely. S/he does not seem to realize that this is the wrong course of action — both from a pragmatic and from a moral point of view. The “evil” manufacturers are only able to get away with absurd claims because they are protected by the very institution that claims to be protecting the consumer. That is, if the FDA says “we have not defined ‘natural’” then Quaker* can use the word “natural” to describe a highly processed food without repercussion. When the FDA chooses to define “natural” it will be arbitrarily excluding or including products just as it has with its definition of “healthy.” If there were no FDA, Quaker would be subject either to litigation for fraudulent claims or would be subject to a marketing campaign that exposed their claims (assuming that the consumers care about nutrition, which they apparently do, since Quaker feels it is necessary to advertise that its product is “natural”). It is the very presence of the FDA that food labeling is so confusing and misleading. Tweaking their rules won’t help — taking them off the books will.
* I don’t intend to single out this one food manufacturer, but rather chose a particular example for clarity.

10:09 pm on February 11, 2010