Food labels underscore omitted ingredients, but are they helpful?

Reporter: Lindsey Sablan
Published: Updated:

Food items are often labeled with big bold claims intended to make you aware of ingredients in the product. Even more commonly today, those food labels list what is not included.

But do these “no ingredient” lists create a peace of mind or more confusion for consumers?

Rena Hedeman, a busy mother of three, said she pays special attention for ingredients she wants to avoid while shopping at the grocery store.

“I definitely look for labels on the foods that might say, for example, ‘No high fructose corn syrup.’ I also try to avoid any kind of hormones whether I’m buying meat or milk,” she said.

Other “no ingredient” label examples include “No added sugar,” “Non-GMO,” “0 grams of transfat” and “Gluten-free.”

Nutrition expert Joan Salge Blake said the “no ingredient” claims are great for people who have to avoid specific nutrients for health reasons. But she said labels can deter the general public from enjoying food.

“Food should be delicious. We should enjoy it. It should be entertaining. But if that negative label is making you scared, we’ve gone, you know, from fun foodies to fearful foodies and the ‘no’ really needs to go,” she said.

Blake said consumers should recognize that the “no ingredients” listed on food labels are often substituted for another ingredient. For example, in many products without high fructose corn syrup the ingredient is replaced by another sweetener. Blake said consumers should flip the food packaging over then check the fact panel to make a more informed decision.

Hedeman said she has put that suggestion into practice.

“I always still always look on the back to find out what else is in there because it might include an ingredient that I’m still trying to avoid,” she said.

Some of the claims on food packages are not regulated. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “specific regulations or rules may apply depending on the type of ‘no’ or ‘free’ claim being made.” For example, “Guten-free” and “Sugar-free” labels are regulated. But other claims are not, so the products are expected to be truthful and non-misleading. Companies that fail to meet those standards can be subject to action from the FDA.

The “no ingredient” claims may also make food more costly, even when a comparable product without the label has the same nutrition facts. Blake said that’s another reason to check the fact labels of food products.

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