8 Misleading, Unscientific, or BS Food Labels
Every single aisle at the grocery store is a menagerie of marketing. Buzzwords and phrases feature prominently on colorful products packed tightly on tall shelves, appealing to our ingrained desire to eat heartily while staying healthy. Though roughly 72% of Americans acknowledge that at least some of these call outs are meaningless, they still successfully create a false aura of health around the products they grace.
Here at RealClearScience, we get fed up fairly quickly with deceptive ploys that fly in the face of science. And, as a great many phrases on food labels fall into this category, we thought we'd make a list of the ones that leave the worst tastes in our mouths.
1. All-Natural. According to Consumer Reports, 59% of consumers look for "natural" on a food label, however most don't know what it means. That's not surprising, because right now it's essentially meaningless. We take umbrage with the term because, scientifically, nothing "unnatural" can exist.
2. Organic. To most consumers, "organic" means that a product is better for the environment, safer, better tasting, more nutritious, and produced without pesticides. None of those descriptions are necessarily true. These misconceptions have been deliberately promoted by the organic food industry and its proponents despite a lack of scientific evidence to support them.
3. No Added Sugar. Every bottle of Naked Juice proudly claims "No Sugar Added." Though technically true, the phrase is marketing wordplay designed to mask the fact that their juice already contains copious amounts of sugar, as much as a similar-sized soft drink! The type of sugar in Naked Juice, called fructose, normally isn't that bad when consumed in actual fruit, which contains fibers to counteract the negative metabolic effects of sugar. But in Naked Juice, those fibers are mostly absent, basically making Naked Juice a $4 can of soda. Naked Juice is easy to pick on, but many other companies are guilty of sneakily using the "No Added Sugar" slogan as well.
4. Hypoallergenic. A great many shampoos, lotions, and soaps claim to be "hypoallergenic," supposedly meaning that they're unlikely to cause some sort of allergic reaction. But, according to the Food and Drug Administration, the term literally means "whatever a particular company wants it to mean." Apparently, that's usually "nothing." As Chemical and Engineering News reported, when researchers analyzed 187 personal care products for babies last year, they found that 89% of the products contained chemicals known to cause skin rash, and 11% contained five or more known allergens.
5. Chemical-Free. To marketers, "chemical-free" indicates that a product is free of synthetic compounds. To chemists, the term is a hilarious misnomer. As two witty chemists noted last year in their ironically brief paper, "A comprehensive overview of chemical-free consumer products," there are no truly chemical-free products. That's because everything is composed of chemicals.
Jokes aside, the phrase is problematic, as it perpetuates an irrational fear of chemicals. Just because a chemical was artificially created in a lab does not mean it's unhealthy. Just because a chemical occurs naturally does not mean it's beneficial. After all, arsenic compounds aren't at all good for you in elevated doses, and they're as natural as chemicals come.
6. Non-GMO. A great many products proudly display their lack of genetically modified organisms like a badge of honor, implying that GMOs are somehow evil. That's a company's choice, of course, but, at the same time, there's nothing wrong with having GMOs in a product. GMOs are perfectly safe for human consumption. Moreover, GMOs have vastly increased crop yields and farmer profits, while reducing pesticide use. We should not ignorantly demonize such a worthwhile scientific advancement.
7. "Boosts Your Immune System." Though the claim comes in a variety of forms, they all imply the same thing: that the product will help prevent disease. Such phrases are specious at best. While a healthy diet certainly strengthens the immune system, no single food is known to prevent the common cold or ward off the flu. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "Such claims... constitute impermissible health claims that have not been authorized by the FDA prior to marketing."
8. rBST-Free. rBST is short for recombinant Bovine somatotropin, a synthetic form of a hormone naturally occurring in cows. Since 1993, it's been injected into dairy cows to increase milk yields. In the past decade, its use has become controversial due to fears that the compound will adversely affect human health through the milk that we drink. Repeated FDA studies have shown that it doesn't. Just like the "Non-GMO" label, labeling something "rBST-Free" feeds on those fears, perpetuating the notion that the chemical is somehow dangerous, when it isn't.