Ever feel like the boxes lined up on grocery store shelves are conspiring to trick you? You're not alone. Despite consumer lawsuits and government action, food companies still try to bend the rules to make labels that will catch your eye—and grab your grocery dollars.
On Aug 29, a California district court will hear a class action complaint against Nutella, the chocolaty hazelnut condiment. The complaint seeks damages for the Nutella label's allegedly misleading claim that it can be part of "a tasty yet balanced breakfast" and counters that it "contains 70% saturated fat [mostly from palm oil] and processed sugar by weight."
Related: Discover the truth about 5 food claims.
Last year the FDA called out Gorton for its Beer Batter Crispy Battered Fish Fillets. On the box is proudly proclaimed a lack of trans fats but no word about the high saturated fat and sodium content. The FDA also issued warnings to a green tea maker and the pomegranate juice powerhouse POM for using overly strong words describing the powers of their antioxidant-laden products. Bing: What are the healthiest packaged foods?
A company's food labels also face scrutiny by competitors. Campbell's (makers of V8) filed a complaint in 2010 with industry arbitrator National Advertising Division (NAD) over Ocean Spray's Fruit and Vegetable juices, suggesting the labels overstated the vegetable content. (Ocean Spray has since agreed to scale back the emphasis on veggies.)
Even the benefits of whole foods such as walnuts can succumb to hyperbole. Diamond Walnuts got in trouble with the FDA last year for saying things such as "[I]n treating major depression…omega-3s seem to work by making it easier for brain cell receptors to process mood-related signals from neighboring neurons." Walnuts aren't mentioned specifically, but in context, says the FDA, the walnuts "are promoted for conditions that cause them to be drugs because these products are intended for use in the prevention, mitigation, and treatment of disease." Big no-no.
Bonus: Find the healthiest foods in The Big Book of Nutrition.
The Government Accountability Office issued a report in January suggesting that the FDA could do even more to protect consumers from misleading claims by demanding more evidence for health claims from the companies that make them.
That said, it's true that even the tightest regulatory structure couldn't promise absolute truth. David Mallen of industry advisory group NAD says marketing image "is so contextual. A company may comply literally with regulations, but the issue for us is what message is actually conveyed? Where [our self-policing efforts] have the greatest impact is when we flag a technically accurate ad that could be misleading or overstating."
Despite pressure from consumer lawsuits, government, and competitors on food makers to keep their product claims within reason, the temptation is to tout any potential competitive edge. "A company might push the envelope in its messaging because it's trying to stand out and attract the consumer. That's how it creates visibility for the product in the store," says Richard Alpert, a professor of law at Suffolk University in Boston, and industry legal advisor.
As a consumer, however, a few strategies can help you spot the hype:
• Watch out for the "tricky three": the words "support", "maintain", and "enhance". These are popular "fudge" words that allow marketers to make vague health claims such as "Supports breast health!" that don't say much, but sound important says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
• Ignore fake fiber: Liebman says new, manufactured sources of fiber such as inulin (most of which have no proven health benefits) are now so pervasive in products such as cereal bars that labels pushing "high in fiber" no longer mean much. Aim to get your fiber from whole fruits and veggies.
• Anti-antioxidants: Research on antioxidants, especially as added vitamins, is inconclusive at best despite how well the buzzword sells products. Don't believe the hype, and get your phytochemicals from whole plant foods.