A May/June 2019 modernfarmer.com article sets the stage for this discussion: “Of all the meaningless terms in the food labeling world – and there are a lot – ‘natural’ might be one of the worst…The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) recently sued Hormel, the company behind brands like Applegate and Dinty Moore, for misleading customers with its ‘natural’ label. The suit was thrown out, but not before, as Bloomberg finds, Hormel was forced to give over documents explaining exactly what’s in its ‘natural’ meats – and even emails from employees concerned about the label.”
The article continues: “Many terms that seem to signal something about the way the animal was raised – ‘farm fresh,’ for example – literally have no definition at all. Anyone can just say that.”
“Keto” is another term bandied about with abandon these days. A health.com article spotlights the challenges behind keto food label claims: “According to a Nutritionist, the ketogenic diet is the trendiest diet right now, so it’s not surprising that food marketers are doing whatever they can to promote their products as keto-friendly. One of the marketing strategies is to display official-sounding keto certifications offered by for-profit companies on packages. These healthy-sounding icons might lead uninformed shoppers to buy items emblazoned ‘keto-certified,’ ‘certified ketogenic,’ ‘keto-approved,’ or ‘ketogenic-friendly,’ rather than a similar item without the keto seal of approval.”
There’s more: “While foods with a keto certification may seem more healthful, the label is more marketing hype than an easier way for you to maintain your keto lifestyle…some people may be in ketosis on 40 grams of carbs per day while others can eat significantly more carbohydrates while maintaining a fat-burning state. Companies that pay to have a keto certification get a simple food label and nutrition facts review. If they meet arbitrary limits for net carbs or effective carbohydrates, they will be awarded use of the certification.”
USDA’s Natural Organic certification program is definitive and difficult to get – in sharp contrast to other health claims and terms that are more marketing promotion than anything else.
Another modernfarmer.com article explains why: “The USDA’s National Organic Program is a complicated operation. Here are some of the challenges to getting – and staying – certified…As the only government-administered label that addresses farming practices, the organic emblem is vitally important. There literally is no other badge that carries as much weight. USDA certified organic-food sales topped $43 billion in 2016 – emphasis on ‘USDA certified.’ Ask around at your local farmers’ market and you’re likely to run into a few ‘all-but-certified’ farms (for which there are no statistics). The reason? Organic certification is incredibly difficult.”
As the world shines an ever-brighter light on company claims and performance via social media, articles, exposés and reviews, one would think that consumers are working hard to separate truth from fiction. In reality, many health-hungry people accept healthy claims from food labels without first attempting to confirm their validity. Here are a few ways to turn that frown upside down:
Read food label ingredients thoroughly. If something looks amiss (e.g., there are a variety of obviously “unnatural” and/or processed ingredients), do some online searching to check out specifics.
Check product reviews, articles and posts online for an overall assessment. If food label claims are bogus or questionable, someone(s) is likely calling them out. Don’t accept any one, two or necessarily three evaluations because the source may be less than credible (e.g., a competitor or paid supporter). Look for consistent comments among multiple citations (e.g., the only “natural” ingredient was sugar).
Do a self-test to see how you feel after consuming the product. While many products – ranging from junk food to highly healthy fare – may not make you feel any different, the key is to determine if and how you do feel better or worse after ingesting it. If you seem to have a negative reaction, try to determine what ingredient(s) is causing the problem. Lacking that ability, stop eating the product altogether. Remember, what works for one person may be another consumer’s worst enemy. By paying attention to what your body tells you, you can go a long way toward achieving and maintaining good health – regardless of what claims are on the food label.
Separate marketing truth from fiction, first by studying food labels and then by doing some investigative reporting. Your body, mind and longevity will be the beneficiaries.
Mark Lusky is a marketing communications professional who has worked with Lightning Labels, an all-digital custom label printer in Denver, CO, USA, since 2008. Find Lightning Labels on Facebook for special offers and label printing news.