Are Food Labels a Marketing Scam?

Organic, sugar free, fat free- We are now in an age where we are supposed to be doing clean eating, and looking for these terms on all of our food labels.  We are supposed to be extra healthy by eating whole foods, and avoiding eating foods with harsh chemicals or preservatives in them.

We are supposed to stop in the middle of the grocery aisle and read the food labels.  You should be able to pronounce all of the ingredients or it’s not good for you. Right?

As a working mom, who has time for all of this?  Is it really necessary, or is it just marketing hype.  And how do we make the best choices?

Organic

So, what is organic exactly?

Organic, in layman’s terms, basically means no synthetic pesticides or synthetic fertilizers were used in the production of the plant item. For livestock, animals can only eat organically grown feed, and can’t be treated with hormones or antibiotics. It also means the food can’t be processed with irradiation or genetic engineering. Good stuff, right?

Organic is actually an item overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The USDA enforces certain regulations and standards in relation to organic, and even controls the use of the term on food labels. That’s good news too, right?

Well, from here it gets a little murky.  First, it’s not as simple as it’s organic or it’s not.  Organic foods can have up to 5% non-organic items in them, and the term ‘made with organic’ means that only 70% or more of it is organic.

Some of those items that organic cuts out can actually be good, too.  For example, most of the produce we buy today has been genetically engineered over 100’s of years to produce better fruits and vegetables.  Genetic engineering can be as simple as how people breed dogs or horses to draw out the better traits in successful generations. Well, they do the same with food.  I’m not saying that all genetic engineering in food is good, but it’s not all bad either.

What about irradiation?  The purpose of it is to kill microorganisms, like mold and bacteria, in our food before it gets to us. This is a bad thing?

I have seen organic labels used on produce, fruits and vegetables.  But then I have also seen it on products like jars of peanut butter, ketchup, snacks, cereals and even cookies.  I get it on the raw ingredients, but once something has been processed and infused with twenty other ingredients, does it even matter now?

Big name brands are cashing in on this too.  There is now a $13.7 billion industry that has us clamoring for organic labeled products.  Companies like General Mills and Coca-Cola all have their own organic lines.  Grocery stores are building their businesses and brands behind it.  Ever hear of Whole Foods, Sprouts, Trader Joes?

Walmart even has grown their organic produce section to where it rivals Sprouts and Whole Foods.

So, you are getting ready to grab product in the grocery. Let’s use bananas as an example.  You have a choice- organic and regular.  Both are the Chiquita brand.  Which do you pick up?

I’ve always reached for the organic.  It’s typically more expensive, but I bought into the hype and it has that Organic label. In my head, it was automatically healthier, so I have to buy it. But as I’ve learned more, I’m not so sure. I’m starting to think this term might be more hype than true benefit.

Sugar Free and Diet

This is the one that really burns me, it is so misleading.  Basically, when an item is labeled sugar free, it means that the product has less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.  But is still tastes sweet, right? What could possibly be wrong here?

What it REALLY means is that the sugar has been replaced with an artificial sweetener or sugar substitute, like corn syrup. Yeah, you’re replacing the sugar in your diet with something that does the exact same thing as sugar, or even worse, to your body.

Most of these artificial sweeteners have scary names such as sucralose, acesulfame potassium, and aspartame.  I don’t know about you- but I can barely pronounce these words never mind wanting to eat or drink something that has this on the label.

In actuality, your body treats these artificial sweeteners just like real sugar. So good luck losing pounds by switching to diet. Even worse, most of these artificial sweeteners have been linked to cancers and other bad things that can happen after prolonged use.

The worst is high fructose corn syrup.  They are putting this sweetener into everything now, which is part of the reason obesity is on the rise.

I don’t know about you- but I am thinking I will pass, and just try to eat or drink something in its most normal state as possible. Avoiding foods with sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners is the right way to go. This is why I gave up my diet coke a long time ago, and mostly drink water or coffee now.

Fat Free

Organic and Low Fat- it must be good!

Now this is a label that can really make you reach for an item.  Doesn’t it give off the impression as I’m the healthiest?!  Eat or drink all products labeled fat free and you won’t gain any weight.

But guess what, also not true.  In order to keep the foods tasting good after removing the fat content, they add…wait for it…artificial sweeteners like High Fructose Corn Syrup.

You saw that right, when you get fat free, you replace the fat content with essentially that thing that is actually going to make you fat, sweeteners.

But with 15g of sugar, would I be better off eating a candy bar?

And fat isn’t even necessarily bad for you. There is bad fat, like the saturated fats they use or used to use to make French fries.  You should definitely avoid these. But there’s also good fat, like what you get in avocadoes, which can be a healthy part of your diet.

Not necessarily a marketing scam, but not so simple as to automatically grab the fat free.

So Many Choices

The more I’ve learned on this topic, the closer attention I’m paying when I’m in the grocery. I see these labels on a lot of products. The other day, when I was in the dairy aisle, there were options for both fat free and sugar free creamers. There wasn’t one labeled for both, but now I understand why. They need the sweetener in the fat free to maintain the flavor, and vice versa.

Separately, they also had an organic option.  Did this have both a sweetener and fat in it? Check it out for yourself next time you’re at the grocery, you might be surprised.

The bottom line is you can’t just automatically grab the Organic, or Sugar Free, or Fat Free. You may inadvertently do worse than if you had just grabbed the regular item. I wish there was an easy answer, especially since none of us have time to always look at the labels and compare ingredients, but it’s just not that simple.

It’s all never ending and it can all be oh so confusing!

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5 thoughts on “Are Food Labels a Marketing Scam?

  1. So, should I buy Organic, or not buy Organic? I’m confused.

    I’m with you on the Sugar free stuff. I don’t even mess with it, if my kids want a snack, I feed them carrots, crackers, and things like that. I don’t give them any processed foods where I would have to worry about any sweeteners.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Hi Susan. Those are great healthier choices for snacks. Yes, the more the food is processed, the less healthy it is. Thanks for reading!

  2. It’s all definitely very confusing! Regardless of what anyone says, it’s hard to know what’s best to put in our bodies and our kids! Everything has to be too complicated these days. Nothing is simple and straightforward anymore!

    1. I agree. And it doesn’t help when we are in the midst of it at the grocery store, we don’t always have the time to do the reading of ingredients. Planning and recommendations from close friends and family always helps.

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