The questionable food labels

A few months ago, I saw a TV commercial for a food product claiming it was “made with real ingredients”. I thought about what this meant. Arsenic is real, and so is mercury, formaldehyde, even dog poop is real. So if I baked chocolate chip cookies and threw in some arsenic, mercury and/or dog poop would I be able to label it “made with real ingredients”? I then imagined what would not be considered a “real ingredient”, and came up with only a few things like pixie dust and elbow grease.

The purpose of that advertisement, or rather the claim “made with real ingredients”, was to suggest something authentic, wholesome or even natural in the food product being advertised. But if one deconstructs its meaning, we’re left with pretty much anything tangible. This is where the success of advertising lies: making claims that will leave the recipient of the message believing in something that may not necessarily exist.

Then there are claims like “natural”. Again, arsenic, mercury, and even lead could also be considered “natural” since they occur naturally in our environment. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising, “[a]dvertisements should not convey the impression that ‘Nature’ has, by some miraculous process, made some foods nutritionally superior to others or has engineered some foods specially to take care of human needs. Some consumers may consider foods described as ‘natural’ of greater worth than foods not so described.”

So what can’t be labelled as “natural”? According to CFIA: “[f]oods or ingredients of foods submitted to processes that have significantly altered their original physical, chemical or biological state should not be described as ‘natural’. This includes such changes as the removal of caffeine.” To read more on this, click here.

There are tons of food products that make claims like “made with real ingredients”, “contains real fruit” or “natural”. I recently noticed a container of Becel margarine with the label “Becel® with Bertolli Olive Oil”. Wow! Margarine made with olive oil!!! I then read the ingredient list which can be found here:

Canola 66%, olive oil 8%, water, modified palm and palm kernel oils 6%, salt 1.8%, whey powder 1.4%, soy lecithin 0.2%, vegetable monoglycerides, potassium sorbate, vegetable colour, artificial flavour, citric acid, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin D3, alpha-tocopherol acetate (vitamin E).

The first ingredient is canola oil (66%) followed by olive oil (8%). However, the main claim being made (from my perspective as a consumer) is that the margarine is made with olive oil, hence the name “Becel Olive Oil”. Even the packaging is different. Instead of Becel’s yellow container, the Becel Olive Oil margarine comes in a green container, which to me, is meant to be associated with olive oil.

Despite the name “Becel Olive Oil” and the slightly nuanced packaging, the margarine contains only 8% olive oil. Why not call it “Becel Canola Oil” since there is more than 8 times canola oil than olive oil? Is it because olive oil is generally perceived as healthier cooking oil?  However, the success of the label is dependent on how well it convinces the reader that this is indeed a product that contains a substantial amount of olive oil, convincing enough to purchase the margarine (if you don’t really read the label).

Food labels can be misleading and it takes a very scrutinizing eye to identify truth from fiction. A few steps I use when buying packaged products are:

  1. Always read the labels. The front of the packaging, the back, the large print, the small print because the devil really is in the details.
  2. Always read the ingredient list to see the main ingredients. According to CFIA’s Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising: “[i]n general, ingredients must be listed in descending order of proportion by weight, as determined before they are combined to make the food. The exceptions are spices, seasonings and herbs (except salt), natural and artificial flavours, flavour enhancers, food additives, and vitamin and mineral nutrients and their derivatives or salts, which may be shown at the end of the ingredient list in any order.”
  3. Always read the nutritional information. Even though a product may only contain one ingredient it can contain a significant amount of other questionable ingredients. I recently purchased coconut flour with only one listed ingredient on the package: “organic coconut flour”. However, 2 Tbsp of this flour contains 30mg of sodium, and according to Health Canada, the adequate intake of daily sodium for adults 14-50 years is 1500 mg/day. One cup of coconut flour contains 250mg of sodium. Why does coconut flour have to have this much sodium? Is it naturally occurring sodium?
  4. I always, always question what I read. I never assume that because something is “healthy” or “natural” that it is accurately labelled. I find this especially true with non-dairy products such as almond milks (but more about this later).

Food should be simple and conveying information about what a food product contains should be honest and accurate. Reading labels and being informed are first steps in making sure we have access to truly healthy and nutritious foods.

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