13 Most Misleading Food Labels (and Product Labels)

13 Most Misleading Food Labels (and Product Labels)

These days, we’re all focusing on our health, and more consumers are taking the time to actually read food and product labels before making a purchase. But many are unaware that some of those labels are not as healthy or safe as they might seem.

So in this article, we’re revealing the most misleading food and product labels and offering tips to help you make the healthiest choices for you and your family.


misleading food labels and product labels


What You Should Know About These Labeling Terms

1. Natural

“Natural” living has become all the rage in our culture. And why not? It sounds great and healthy. Sustainable living is beneficial for everyone. Certainly, those “natural” food and health product labels seem amazing, but what do they really mean?

Grocery stores across the United States contain more and more foods and products labeled “Natural.” And consumers spend billions of dollars each year on these goods because they believe they are healthier. But, in reality, that may not be the case!

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expressly states that “the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term ‘natural’" even though they have received numerous petitions and requests from citizens and the Federal courts to do so. (FDA)

And, because the term “natural” on food labels is not legally defined, it is not regulated either!

Even the term “natural flavors” doesn’t mean what you might think! Unlike the term “natural,” the term “natural flavors” is regulated by the FDA. However, the FDA’s regulations allow the use of “natural flavors” on food labels, even when the product contains both artificial and synthetic chemicals (such as those used as processing aids). (Food and Drug Law Journal)

2. Clean

We are huge fans of “clean” living at Raise Them Well. That said, let us be the first to tell you that “clean” is another one of those labeling terms that the FDA and USDA do not define. So it can mean just about anything, and each manufacturer defines it differently.

We believe it’s essential for consumers to know that clean labeling is a relatively new trend, and its use is not regulated. In its most basic form, clean labeling is a movement to make food and product labels easier for consumers to understand and encourage manufacturers to create products with simple, recognizable ingredients - instead of synthetic, artificial, or non-nutritional ingredients (like fillers).

But without regulation, there is no guarantee that products labeled “clean” truly follow these guidelines. That’s why it is vital for consumers to carefully review the ingredients in the foods and products they buy.

3. Green

Most consumers believe that “green” products are environmentally friendly - manufactured or produced in a way that doesn’t harm the environment or create unnecessary waste.

Surprisingly, the FDA has not defined “green” or issued guidance on when and how this term may be used. And while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has worked to implement standards for using “green” on product labels, they are still very loose.

Still, many companies claim that products are “green” on their labels. They even use packaging that includes green colors, leaves, trees, etc., so consumers subconsciously associate the product with nature.

But without regulation, there’s just no way to know if these claims are accurate. In fact, according to the FTC, many of these companies are guilty of "greenwashing" or marketing their products as "green," even if only certain aspects of the product's life cycle are green.

4. Organic

We’ve all heard that eating organic and using organic products is healthy and a way to assess product quality quickly. However, when we dive into organic labeling specifics, we must be aware of a couple of things.

Does The Label Contain A USDA Seal?

A product can have “organic” on its label without regulation as long as it doesn’t include the USDA’s seal.

How the USDA Categorizes Organic Products

Although the USDA has four categories for organic products, only the first three can include the USDA seal.

  1. 100% Organic - Products that contain 100 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water, which are considered natural) can use the USDA seal on their labels.

    Most raw, unprocessed, or minimally processed farm crops can be labeled “100 percent organic” and have the USDA seal on their labels.

  2. Organic - Products that contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients can have the USDA seal on their labels.

    While that sounds pretty good, there are certain "organic" ingredients we wouldn't want to eat. Some examples include:

    - monosodium glutamate (msg), a flavor-enhancing natural ingredient
    - carrageenan, a seaweed substance that thickens food

    Both ingredients are shunned by organic-favoring foodies, who believe these ingredients pose health dangers even though government scientists have cleared them as perfectly harmless.

  3. Made With Organic Ingredients - Products that contain a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients may include the USDA seal on their labels.

    This label carries no guarantees about what else might be in the product because 30 percent of the product’s ingredients are not organic. For example, consumers who buy a bag of popcorn labeled “made with organic corn” might be surprised to learn that their “healthy” treat may also include non-organic and potentially unhealthy ingredients like GMO canola or soybean oil.

  4. Organic on the front of the product label without the USDA seal - Products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot claim they are organic, but the certified organic ingredients they contain may be listed on their labels with the term “organic.” And manufacturers may specify the percentage of organic ingredients on their labels. Keep in mind that organic claims made on the front of product labels without the USDA seal have very little regulation. (USDA Organic Labeling Regulations)

Bottom line: Stick with products labeled “100% Organic” that have the USDA seal if you want to avoid non-organic ingredients.

5. Safe

The FDA and USDA do not define the term “safe.” And just because a product label contains the term “safe” doesn’t mean that the product is “organic,” “free of genetically modified organisms,” includes “no artificial ingredients,” or that the product is actually safe to ingest. Instead, it can mean whatever a manufacturer wants it to mean—or nothing at all.

6. Eco-Friendly

The term “eco-friendly” is not defined clearly by the FDA or USDA. Product labels like "environmentally friendly," "eco-friendly," and "earth-friendly" are just different ways of saying "not environmentally harmful." But not being harmful does not mean that a product is organic, healthy, or free of toxins.

The FTC Green Guides say that a product’s packaging must explain why it is environmentally responsible when using "eco-friendly" on its label. Otherwise, the product could be environmentally harmful, depending on how consumers use it. That said, the FTC guide is advice or recommendations about using these terms, not a regulation. Unless claims are found to be incredibly misleading, the FTC does nothing about products that claim they are eco-friendly. (USDA)

7. Hypoallergenic

“Hypoallergenic” is not defined by the FDA or USDA. And just because a product has “hypoallergenic” on its label doesn’t mean it won’t produce an allergic reaction in some users.

As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explains, “There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term ‘hypoallergenic.’ The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean.”

People have varying degrees of sensitivity to allergy-causing ingredients (allergens). Some might experience no adverse effects from a particular substance, while others feel slightly itchy or uncomfortable. And some may experience a full-fledged allergic reaction.

For those with allergies, it’s important to clarify if a product contains the specific allergens that are problematic for you. Sometimes that means you will need to contact the manufacturer as some allergens may be introduced during the manufacturing or packaging processes even though the allergen is not one of that product’s ingredients. For example, an allergen may be introduced when products that do not contain nuts, wheat, or dairy are packaged in facilities that also package products containing these allergens.

8. Non-Toxic

The term “non-toxic” is, shockingly, unregulated. And neither the FDA nor USDA monitors the use of this term. The only written regulation related to “non-toxic” comes from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which is the governing body that administers the Federal Hazardous Substance Act.

Although they do not define the term “non-toxic,” it is derived from their definition of “toxic.” According to the CPSC, a toxic product is one that “can produce personal injury or illness to humans when it is inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin.” So a non-toxic product does not produce injury or illness to humans when inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin.

The CPSC Act specifies that a product must kill half or more of a group of lab rats to be considered toxic. However, it also has a lot of precise and confusing language in the section that indicates the dosage and exposure time for a substance to be considered toxic. So, for example, if a toxic substance kills 49 percent of its test subjects, it can still legally be labeled non-toxic!

The bottom line on “non-toxic”: the term in and of itself doesn’t tell us that much. The burden is on us, as consumers, to educate ourselves on the ingredients in our products and select brands that make responsible decisions in the space.

9. Toxic-Free

This term is also not regulated by a governing body such as the FDA or USDA but is defined and certified by the ToxicFree Foundation.

The ToxicFree Foundation is a private non-profit organization dedicated to research, education, and corporate and government oversight of the ingredients in the products we use. To receive ToxicFree certification, a product must: be completely free from harmful chemicals, contain only ingredients that are 100% natural and from the earth, be manufactured sustainably, and be safe for the environment. The ToxicFree foundation offers a special seal to those products that meet its stringent standards.

Without the seal, the term “toxic free” means little. Because although the CPSC defines “toxic” or “highly toxic,” there is no governmental regulation of the use of “toxic-free.”

10. Phosphate-Free

Phosphates are a form of phosphoric acid and a natural source of phosphorous - a key component of our teeth and bones. Phosphates are also commonly found in cleaning products, often detergents.

Sounds okay, right? Well, not so much because phosphates can adversely affect how proteins act in the body if they get into our bloodstream. (National Cancer Institute) Studies show they are toxic to people and aquatic life. That’s why 25 states and the District of Columbia have proposed restrictions or bans on phosphates and phosphate-containing products.

So it makes sense to avoid products that contain phosphates. But here’s the problem. Currently, companies are not required to provide complete ingredient lists on the labels of many household items that typically contain phosphates. In addition, there is no governmental regulation of the “phosphate-free” label. The lack of oversight for this label creates an opportunity for companies to misuse and omit information.

Alternative names can also appear on ingredient lists that deceive consumers. These include polycarboxylates, ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA), alkyl phenoxy polyethoxy ethanol, and nonylphenol ethoxylate. (EWG)

11. Non-GMO

Most people know that GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) means that the genetic material (DNA or RNA) of a plant, animal, or other organism has been altered by human intervention. And while selective breeding has been used for thousands of years to modify the characteristics of dogs, cats, cattle, flowers, and other organisms, the main concerns about GMOs are allergies, cancer, and environmental issues.

In July 2016, Congress passed a law that required the USDA to issue regulations on the disclosure of “bioengineered foods.” But, although the USDA has defined “bioengineered food,” there is no such definition for “non-GMO” or similar claims. And “non-GMO” is not defined by any regulation.

Under federal law, “the term ‘non-GMO’ remains undefined but can be used appropriately with careful documentation and consideration as to the criteria for such a claim.” (Food and Drug Law Institute) However, there are no consistent, enforceable, or clear guidelines for using the “non-GMO” label, and validation is not required except for eggs, meat, and poultry products.

12. Food-Safe

The FDA and USDA do not regulate the use of the “food-safe” label but generally define “food safe” as a food-grade material that is appropriate for its intended use and will not create a food-safety hazard. (ISM)

Interestingly, the FDA doesn't test these materials. Instead, companies that want to use new food additives are responsible for providing the FDA with information demonstrating that the additives are safe. (FDA) And without independent testing, it is impossible to know if their safety claims are factual.

13. Food-Grade

“Food Grade” is a “material [that] is either safe for human consumption, or is okay to come into direct contact with food products.” (ISM) And even though the term is often used, it is not regulated.

Finally, companies that use this term are expected to know the definition and act in a manner consistent with that definition. So, unless there is a serious violation, there is essentially no regulatory monitoring.