If you eat processed or packaged food, ideally you should be able to tell what is in the food you are eating by looking at the ingredient list and the nutrition facts label. However, this is not always the case and what you see on the label may not always be what you get.
Food Label Accuracy
While most prepared foods sold in the United States are required to contain nutrition labels, in one U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) survey of nutritional labels it was found that one out of every 10 products had inaccuracies. These, they said, were excellent results.
A food label must be more than 20 percent off in order for it to violate federal law, and government food labs have a 10 percent margin of error. This means that an item labeled as having 400 calories can legally have up to 480 calories, plus there is the 10 percent testing margin of error.
Nonetheless, some foods, particularly those making low-fat, low-carb or no-sugar claims, contain drastically different nutrients than are listed on the label. For instance, according to an ABC News report from May 2004, two doughnut vendors that claimed their doughnuts were low-fat had dramatically understated the calorie and fat content of the doughnuts. In one case, a "carob-coated" doughnut with three grams of fat and 135 calories was actually a chocolate doughnut that contained 18 grams of fat and 530 calories.
There are many other companies that have misbranded their products, including some of the newer products making low-carb claims. Carbolite’s vanilla mousse mix, which claimed 2 grams of carbs and no sugar per serving, actually had 8 grams of carbs and 4.2 grams of sugar. Another product, chocolate chips with zero crabs, actually had 14.2 grams of carbohydrates.
Hidden and Misleading Ingredients
Aside from the potential errors with nutrition labels, product ingredients can also be misleading. For instance, food products that say they contain milk, fruit or vegetables may not contain them at all.
Some examples include Pillsbury Blueberry Muffins, which do not contain blueberries--they contain artificial blueberry bits--and Chex Milk and Cereal Bars, which contain no real milk. Instead, they actually contain non-fat powdered milk, palm oil, sugar and additives.
Further, allergenic ingredients may not be listed on food labels. Cross contamination, which can occur when the same equipment is used to manufacture multiple products, can potentially cause allergic products to be introduced to non-allergic products if equipment is not cleaned adequately.
(BY THE WAY IF YOU BELEIVE YOU HAVE ANY FOOD ALLERGIES, PLEASE TALK TO DR. KESTEN ABOUT THE ALLERGY ELIMINATION TECHNIQUE!)
There is also the potentially daunting task of trying to decipher what exactly certain ingredients are. For instance, if you were trying to avoid corn you would have to avoid not only anything listed as corn, but also Malt, Malt extract and syrup, Sorbitol, Food starch, Dextrin, Fructose and fructose syrup, Baking powder, Monosodium glutamate, Maltodextrin, Starch and Confectioner’s sugar. All of these items could potentially be made from corn, but unless you are specifically aware of what to look for it would be easy to overlook these items when looking for corn on an ingredient label.
What You Can Do
The FDA is encouraging food labels to be more science based and they will contain information on trans fats by 2006, however there is still no guarantee that the label accurately lists everything that a food contains.
Tips to ensure that you know exactly what you are eating
Don’t eat packaged or processed foods
Eat whole foods
Make your food at home
If you are used to relying on processed foods then this may sound difficult, but it is actually just a difference in mindset. Choosing whole foods like fresh produce, organic meat and eggs and other ‘real’ food is the natural way to eat, and once you start eating this way it will seem only natural to you.
If you need some help getting started I suggest you read through my new book for a comprehensive, healthy eating program that is filled with only real, natural foods. You can check out the nutrition plan for an overview to get you started in the meantime. It’s true that eating whole foods will take you more time, but if you are interested in knowing exactly what you are putting into your body and changing your health for the better, it is well worth the effort.