Understanding Food Labels – The Art of Misrepresentation

As consumers, we rely heavily on the information that is provided on labels. The thing is, very little of what we see is actually required to be there, and the majority of it is designed very specifically to make you want to buy the product.

Most people probably don’t know that the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) doesn’t approve all food labels before the product ends up in the store. Recall of food products happen when they have been found to be adulterated (containing foreign or contaminated matter), or misbranded (inaccurate or misleading labeling). The more obvious errors are caught sooner, but it’s the clever misrepresentation that ends up being the most insidious to consumers. When it comes to labels, there are still many grey areas and loopholes that the FDA has tirelessly worked to fill. It really wasn’t that long ago that food producers could get away with outrageous claims, and to some extent, they still can.

From LIFE magazine in 1957, claiming sugar is the “sensible new approach to weight control”.

The current food labeling industry guide as released by the FDA is 129 pages long and outlines every exact detail of what goes on a food label and to what specifications. There are four pages dedicated solely to what constitutes the usage of the word “juice”.

This industry guide is merely a summation of the many complex food regulations and statutes. So, just like a wealthy man could avoid paying taxes with clever tax lawyers, there are food lawyers who can exploit the loopholes within the food code to mislead consumers into buying their products.

The FDA and the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) work together to ensure that food advertising isn’t misleading to consumers, but it’s a long and complicated process having products recalled, rebranded or pulled from shelves. That means it’s up to us as consumers to be able to more objectively view food products in the store. In order to do that it’s important to have a basic understanding of these concepts and how we interact with them every time we shop.

I hope you’ll follow along as I continue this series on The Art of Misrepresentation. Next, a look at the “natural” claim and how, what started as a clever marketing trick, has turned into many years of litigation and debate for regulation.

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