Labels stink," said Sanford Miller, a high-ranking Food and Drug Administration official. "And you can quote me on that." In recent years, consumer advocates have criticized food labels for providing what they call inadequate and sometimes misleading information. But Miller said he is displeased because labels can be difficult to decipher.
"It's so complicated, and getting more complicated, because everybody and his uncle has some pet nutrient or something they want on the label," said Miller, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Foods that claim to have "no artificial flavors" sometimes contain artificial colors and preservatives. "Sugar-free" foods have no sucrose but often include other high-calorie sweeteners such as corn syrup. Some manufacturers of orange juice, raisins and jams boast that their products contain no preservatives. They don't say the products do not need preservatives.
Food labels are caught between industry, which uses them as an advertising tool, and consumer advocates, who believe wrappers should be an information source. This dual, and sometimes conflicting, role of selling a product and providing facts can cause confusion.
In recent years, as health-conscious consumers shunned sugar, several companies eliminated sugar from the names of products but not from the products themselves. Super Sugar Crisp made by C.W. Post was renamed Super Golden Crisp. The Kellogg Co. changed Sugar Frosted Flakes to Frosted Flakes, Sugar Smacks to Honey Smacks, and Sugar Corn Pops to Corn Pops.
"The word 'sugar' is no longer as beneficial as it was years ago," said Ken Defren, manager of corporate communications for General Foods, which owns C.W. Post.
"We wanted to highlight the honey in Honey Smacks," said Dick Lovell, manager of communications for Kellogg. "With Frosted Flakes and Corn Pops, it was an opportunity to change the name to what consumers were already calling the cereal."
The change in names, however, was not reflected in the ingredients. The cereals still contain between 30 to 55 percent sugar and other sweeteners, said Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer group. Liebman obtained her information from the product labels and from the companies.
One serving (28 grams) of Frosted Flakes contains 11 grams of sweetener, Corn Pops contains 12 grams of sweetener and Honey Smacks contains 16 grams of sweetener, said Kellogg's Lovell. A spokesman for C.W. Post said he could not disclose the total sweetener content of Super Golden Crisp as "a matter of company policy."
Unwary consumers can be misled by food labels that identify ingredients but often don't list other nutrition information such as amounts of protein, carbohydrate and fat, critics of labels contend. Ingredients are identified in descending order of weight, begining with the main ingredient. Nutrition information is required only when vitamins or minerals are added, or if a manufacturer makes a nutrition claim such as "low fat."
According to the FDA, 55 percent of all packaged foods list nutrition information. Some critics say this leaves consumers too often in the dark. "If 45 percent of foods do not have nutrition labels, then you cannot make choices based on nutritional values," said Ellen Haas, director of the Washington-based Public Voice for Food and Health Policy.
In an attempt to help consumers with the information they do get, the FDA has defined certain terms that appear on labels. These definitions, however, can create a thicket of distinctions unintelligible to many shoppers.
The agency, for example, defines "low calorie" as a food with no more than 40 calories per serving (or 0.4 calories per gram). A "reduced calorie" food must have at least one third fewer calories than it would have in its standard form.
Terms left undefined can be more confusing. For example, consumers might expect that "dietetic" products have fewer calories. Not necessarily. Each cookie in Stella D'oro Dietetic Peach Apricot Pastry contains 90 calories, according to the label. "These cookies are for sodium-restricted diets, not weight-reducing diets," said company president Val Serutti.
Also undefined are "lite" and "light." Some "light" products actually contain more calories than their standard counterparts. Van de Kamp's Light & Crispy Fish Fillets contain 90 calories per ounce, said product manager Fran Wolfe. Van de Kamp's Batter Dipped Fish Fillets have 60 calories per ounce. "Light and crispy is in reference to the coating being thin and crispy," Wolfe said. "We do not position light and crispy as a low-calorie product."
In other cases, there is no caloric difference between "light" and "regular." One serving of Fritos Light contains the same number of calories as a serving of regular Fritos corn chips. "The term light comes from the fact that those Fritos are a little crispier and airier," said Frito-Lay media relations manager Greg Overman. "They are the same chip and have the same ingredients."
Liebman and other consumer advocates believe the use of undefined terms creates a loophole allowing industry to capitalize on fads. The FDA, however, counters that it cannot define all terms on labels.
"We won't be defining 'natural,' that's for sure -- it's a real morass," said Miller. "The problem is an obvious one -- at what point does something stop being natural? Take an apple and dry it in the sun, is that natural? If it's dried by convection or by microwave heat, is that natural? Somewhere there is a point in which it stops being natural, but we can't define that point." Labels are sometimes deceptive intentionally, though the FDA is unsure how often. "As our resources are used in other areas, we do less compliance activities for labeling violations," said Miller, who notes the agency slowed its efforts to monitor violations seven years ago. "It's hard to say whether there's been an increase -- I suppose there has, since that's been our experience when we're not out there actively enforcing the law."
In recent years, the FDA uncovered several deceptions, including: honey or maple syrup diluted with fructose or corn sugars; olive oil and sesame oil that contained corn, soy or cottonseed oils; grated Parmesan or Romano cheese that contained whey solids instead of cheese; apple juice and orange juice adulterated with water and sweeteners; and scallops that were fish fillets cut to resemble scallops. Products sold as "health food" raise other issues. Although some consumers believe such products are more nutritious, this belief is unfounded, according to Liebman. "You can't be any more trusting when you walk down the aisles of health food stores than you are in a supermarket," she said. "Many health brands replace salt with sea salt, and sugar with honey; a lot of products are made with natural ingredients but they have a high fat content."
One example is Burry's Carob Milk Bar, which contains 31 grams of fat per three-ounce bar, according to company president Allen Burry. This is a higher percentage of fat than equal servings of Hersey's Milk Chocolate, Reese's Peanut Butter Cup or Mars' Milky Way, Liebman said.
Last fall, Sens. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) introduced a bill to reduce confusion caused by existing labels. The legislation would require manufacturers to list the amount of fat, sodium and cholesterol in products. The bill would also eliminate 'flexi-labeling,' which allows the ingredient list to say "contains one or more of the following."
"A product can say it contains one or more of the following oils: soy, corn or lard. The soy and corn would be fine, but what about that lard?" said Metzenbaum. "This 'and/or' labeling is absolutely an insult to the American people and a dereliction of responsiblity on the part of the FDA."
Miller, who opposes the bill, said the FDA lacks the resources necessary to enforce a mandatory labeling scheme.
"The agency has been fixed in its size for almost 10 years, but its responsibilities are increasing day by day. To enforce mandatory labeling, what should we not do? Should we not be out there investigating microbiotic contamination?" asked Miller. "The worst thing you can do is have a law you're not enforcing; it just makes all law trivial."