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Explaining the Labels: Misleading Labels

February 11th, 2015
Center for Food Safety

Labels with health or environmental claims are everywhere in the grocery store these days, and it can be overwhelming to decipher what these labels really mean. Often these claims are entirely unsubstantiated. Here’s a list of some of the most misleading labels in the grocery store. Check back next week for the second part of this series, Labels You Can Trust.

Free Range
Free range is a general claim that implies that a meat or poultry product comes from an animal that was raised in the open air. However, the USDA allows for any chicken raised with access to the outdoors to be labeled “free range.” Nowhere does it state that the chickens have to actually go outdoors; access is the only legal requirement. There are no legal standards in “free range” egg production; it is a label that is regulated by the USDA for poultry only, and is meaningless for eggs.[1]

Cage-free is often confused with free range. While hens laying eggs labeled as cage-free are uncaged inside barns, they may or may not have any access to the outdoors. There is no mandatory third-party auditing for this label, though producers can voluntarily choose to get certified.[2]

While the USDA has a good definition for grass-fed that requires 100% grass-based feed over the lifetime of the animal, it stated in 2007 that it would not limit the use of the “grass-fed” claim to producers that are verified or meet their 100% standard. By itself, the label does not tell you if the animal was actually on a pasture or if the animal feed is organic, and it doesn’t mean that there was no hormone or antibiotic use. Look for American Grassfed Association and Food Alliance Grassfed labels, both of which are verified.[3]

Pasture Raised
There is currently no legal definition for “pasture raised” or the related term “pastured.” While the phrase might evoke bucolic images, in actuality it can mean whatever the producer wants it to mean. “Pasture-raised” has no formal definition or regulation, which means it has no enforcement behind it.[4]

Lightly Sweetened
There are few standards for “lightly sweetened.” Although the FDA has definitions for terms like reduced sugar, no added sugar, and sugar free, this label can be misleading. "Lightly sweetened" is used to describe many products, including canned fruits, cereals and juices, that are loaded with sugar, corn syrup or other artificial sweeteners.[5]

Made With Real Fruit
This is another claim that is completely unregulated. Products that claim to be made with real fruit often contain only a small amount, and it often isn’t even the same kind of fruit that is pictured on the package. Check the ingredients to make sure that fruit is high on the list.[6]

Many products claim to be “multigrain” but they often contain refined flour as the first ingredient, and the amount of whole grains are minimal. Look for the words “whole grain” or “100% whole wheat” on the packages of your bread and crackers and check the ingredient list to make sure whole wheat is the first, and main, ingredient.[7]

When at the grocery store, don’t be swayed by products with a “natural” claim--it is not verified and each company can use its own definition. USDA provides a guidance that meat and poultry products do not contain any artificial flavors, coloring ingredients, chemical preservatives, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredients. For all other foods, the FDA’s unregulated definition says that nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.  However, for the natural label, there is no verification and virtually no oversight and enforcement by either USDA or FDA. “Natural” foods can include artificial ingredients and can be genetically engineered. Produce can be grown with pesticides and meat can be raised with antibiotics and synthetic animal feed.[8]

Pesticide Free
"Pesticide free" is a general claim that leads consumers to believe that the food was grown without the use of pesticides. There is no legal requirement for this label; a manufacturer can include this claim on any package of food, regardless of whether it is truthful and verified. Buy certified organic produce to avoid pesticides.[9]

For more information on these and other labels, visit the Consumer Reports Greener Choices website.