Food Labeling: guidelines, definitions, and regulations

Home / Food Labeling: guidelines, definitions, and regulations - February 7, 2013 , by kimberly

Reading food labels often leaves me feeling like a failed detective. I can’t understand or pronounce half of the ingredients and I still see the “all natural” seal of approval on the front of the packaging. How can this be?

I’ve been confused by the terms “all natural” “made with real fruit” and a few others for a while now. How do companies get away with bragging about real ingredients and then list things like high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and a bunch of other crap in their actual ingredients run down? I decided that I would study the legislation, or lack-there-of, and find out the rules for food labeling and nutrition facts for myself. Certainly if I knew the labeling rules, I’d be able to decipher packaging for myself, right?

It’s no wonder that we can’t understand the labels when the FDA themselves don’t seem able to settle on defined terms and proper usage. The FDA’s Food Labeling Guide comes with the disclaimer that even though there are regulations in place, those “regulations are frequently changed” and I find that to be “ground zero” for our confusion as consumers.

The questions I have as a consumer are a constant – Is this natural? If not, what is it and why is it in there? What are the nutritional values? So if the questions that need answering aren’t changing, why would the definitions that help answer these questions need changing, and frequent change at that? Something is either a fruit juice – or it is not. Something is either all-natural – or it has something in it that has been changed or altered and that moves it over into the “un-natural” or “artificial” column.

To me as a consumer, as a mom, as a person who eats food these things are black and white. So why, when it comes to food legislation and the rules for food labeling are there so many convoluted terms, why the gray areas?

The term “light” can refer to anything from texture, color, or even the taste but has no “healthy” guarantee or even an indication of less calories and fat. The term itself is not legislated and can be used in any manner and to any purpose a food manufacturer sees fitting. Back when I was working on a freelance article about healthy, frozen lunch options for kids, I was shocked when a quick glance at the nutrition label on a product marked as a “light option” alternative to the brand-name Bagel Bites, revealed that the nutritional values for the light option were actually worse than the brand-name product. The light option was worse than the original. In that particular instance, the so-called healthy option was located on an entirely separate “healthy” freezer aisle and so it would be highly unlikely that a typical consumer would make the side by side comparison of the two products – the “healthy” one of course cost more and I bet plenty of people see that “light option” labeling and simply pay more thinking they are making a healthier choice.

If that’s not misleading and intentionally deceitful…

Just wait, because it gets a whole lot worse.

I read through the FDA’s guidelines, all 122 pages of it, and I couldn’t believe how overly complicated some things were.

There are more than five pages dedicated to defining (or rather un-defining and muddling) the term “juice.” I still can’t even sum that one up for you… It should be simple. If it’s from a fruit = juice. Not from a fruit = not juice. You started with juice and you added other stuff = flavored drink. As far as I’m concerned, shouldn’t it be that easy? Juice, not juice, flavored drink.

And did you know that trace ingredients need not be listed in the ingredients label so long as they are a “bi-product” of the food manufacturing and they are not “present in a significant amount and has a function in the finished food”* – hello, if it’s a trace amount, when would it ever qualify as a significant amount? And what purpose would a bi-product serve? Trace or significant, I think we deserve to know what is in our food. *Unless it is a known allergen, then it must be listed.

As I read through, I made a lot of notes and underlines – questions that it brought up and terms I would need to look up because they were not defined in the guidelines themselves. I even made several WTF notes…

WP_001847All finished reading, I had more questions than when I had started.

I don’t want to feel like a crazy, against-the-grain whacko studying every single food label for foods we consider bringing into our house.

But if foods with hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup as the primary ingredients are the norm – well, then shoot, I do want to be against-the-grain. That’s a norm I want no part of.

The other day I was trying to find blackberry jelly or jam, either one, I just wanted it to be real. I looked at nearly a dozen different brands and all turned up the same results: high fructose corn syrup, fruit syrup (made with pineapple, apple and/or lemon juice), blackberry juice, corn syrup (listed again), fruit pectin, and citric acid.

How has this become the norm? Where foods bearing the name of a real food in nature don’t even have that real food in them? Blackberry jam with no blackberries, just a bit of juice amidst a myriad of corn syrup.

Oh and by the way, just because something says “made with real fruit” it might be like my jam experience – made with juice from the fruit and no actual fruit. There is no quantification for using this term meaning that so long as you have a few drops of real fruit juice in your product, you can add all kinds of artificial flavors, coloring and preservatives and still say your product is “made with real fruit.” As a company, you are of course going to do this because people tend to “trust” this label, many of us specifically look for these terms “all natural,” “made with real fruit,” etc – often times folks will even pay more for products with this label even if the nutritional values are the same or less healthy than alternative brands which do not use this type of labeling.

Multi-grain is a similar debacle – there’s no federal definition of multi-grain and it can mean any combination of grains, and does not necessitate the use of “whole grains” which is a term that actually bears some weight and what you should start looking for instead.

Probably the best part about the food labeling guidelines (–>insert heavy sarcasm here<—) is that the monitoring is incredibly weak. To put it simply: the rules are too complicated and too loophole-ridden to be accurately managed. For instance, the FDA does not analyze all products (honestly, how could it?). Companies are to know the regulations and impose them on themselves – the FDA “does not approve and is not in a position to endorse or recommend specific laboratories” to perform product analyses for labeling and nutritional info. Furthermore, a food manufacturer need not even test their product for accurate calorie, fat, protein and other nutritional values if they would rather use an “ingredient data base” for that information instead. Oh really…

And if a company does post inaccurate labeling or nutritional information and the FDA does happen to catch it in one of their “surveillance samples” well then the company might face real problems right? Of course! Well, actually:

“The manufacturer, packer or distributor would be advised of any analytical results that are not in compliance. Additionally, depending on circumstances, FDA may initiate regulatory action.”

Oh, I’m sure “being advised” of their oversights and “possible regulatory action” has the companies just shaking in their boots. Or you know, putting whatever the heck they want on our food labels. You decide if I’m playing the cynic now…

What about non-packaged foods, or foods like poultry, eggs and beef?

There are separate guidelines put out by the USDA for meat products, poultry products and egg products – entirely separate from the FDA’s labeling guide. In preparation of this post, I asked you to do a little homework. I asked you to read an article from Cook’s Illustrated that focused in on chicken labeling and manufacturing/farming techniques.

The thick and thin of that article is this:

“Today’s commercial chickens grown to twice the size in about half the time as chickens raised 60 years ago…intensive farming has led to trade-offs…Birds get doses of antibiotics from their earliest days not only to prevent and treat diseases rampant in their crowded conditions but also to help them grow faster. Some producers even inject antibiotics into eggs, and most routinely add them to the chicken’s feed, a soy and corn mix often bulked up with feather meal (ground-up chicken feathers) and other animal by products leftover from slaughter, as well as scraps like commercial bakery leftovers… In a recent study analyzing feather meal, Johns Hopkins researchers found residue of arsenic; they also found traces of caffeine and the active ingredients in Benadryl, Tylenol and Prozac, which had been fed to the chickens to alter their moods.” Read the whole article.

The food labeling guidelines put forth by the USDA might be even worse than those by the FDA.

“Many claims cited on poultry packaging have no government regulation, while those that do are often poorly enforced.”


(from Cook’s Illustrated – “Decoding Chicken Labels”)WP_001852

See more on the label terms “Air Chilled,” “American Humane Certified,” “Natural and All Natural,” and “Hormone Free” – odds are you’ll be shocked to discover what those little labels are really telling you.

Do we really have a choice?

  • In short, yes. But we have to be educated about the issues so we can make smart choices on the grocery aisles, choices that sway the marketplace to provide us with real, healthy, natural foods.
  • Nearly all packaged foods are “un-necessary” so you can make an immediate choice now by choosing to buy, and cook with, real, whole ingredients rather than buying prepared and packaged foods that are full of junk.
  • For our meat supplies, some folks think the antibiotics and medicines are just a necessary adaptation as the population and food needs have increased. This article in the New York Times about using Oregano in place of traditional antibiotics is a good conversation starter and points out that there are in fact, alternatives.

What can we do about it?

  • I already mentioned changing your shopping habits to buy only whole food ingredients. But you can also take action by writing to your local senator or congressional representatives, ask your grocery manager to carry specific items, rally your PTA group – whatever platform you have to raise your voice on these issues, stand up tall and proud.

Want to know more:

7 thoughts on “Food Labeling: guidelines, definitions, and regulations”

  1. Criss says:

    Informative (and disturbing) post. I am passing it along…

    1. Kimberly says:

      It is disturbing isn’t it? It definitely changes my approach to grocery shopping

  2. Awesome post. I too take FOREVER at each grocery shopping trip analyzing labels. I’ve decided to make most things from scratch at home to avoid the dangerous, processed ingredients that we know basically nothing about!
    Becky @ Olives n Wine recently posted..Wine Wipes Giveaway!!My Profile

    1. Kimberly says:

      Good for you Becky! Starting with whole foods is really the best way, I agree.

  3. anon says:

    Glad to know I’m not the only one that feels a bit nutty reading all the labels! thanks for the great info

  4. Amy says:

    This may blow your mind, but even ingredients like “all-natual flavorings” are synthesized and created in a lab. Doesn’t sound natural to me! Even whole foods like Corn, Soy, Canola, Cotton(seed oil), Squash, Papaya, Alfalfa, and Sugarbeets are genetically engineered to contain unnatural things like herbicides and pesticides right in the DNA of the plant. We are all acting as Guinea Pigs for Big Ag biotech companies. Buy organic whenever possible, or from a local farmer who will answer any questions you have about the way their animals and crops are raised.

    1. Kimberly says:

      Amy, yes the list of things to watch for is mind blowing and the concept of natural flavoring is really where this all started. I bought some ice cream that said it only had cream, sugar, egg and natural flavoring. But the ice cream was green. How can this be? Cream, sugar and eggs are not green. So I looked into natural flavoring. Which, you’re right, is just a lab test tube or vial of god only knows..
      A big thing is awareness and making choices – we can’t make it all go away all at once but we can make changes in our own purchasing and eating habits that will contribute to larger change over time. This is one of my big reasons for interviewing all these CSA farmers. I want to know where my food is coming from, I want to know the people that are working those farms and I want to know that they care as much I do.

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I am a twenty-something working gal, a wife and mom to two young boys - a preschooler and a second grader.
I'm a strong believer in forging my own path and making my own rules.
My husband and I are both history majors trapped in the business world; our adventures tend to have a history lesson attached.
Together, we're working to coordinate our values, beliefs, goals and ideals into a practical parenting style that works for us.
I believe healthy food can and should be fun, tasty and affordable.
I use this space to share recipes and workouts for busy gals like myself and I invite you to follow along with us in our daily lives. Welcome.
Grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and get ready to have some fun with us :)

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