Homemade, healthy, low-fat, natural — we see these terms plastered across branded food labels and associated with veganism, but are they misleading?
There is a lot of noise at the moment about labelling on foods and brands. There are the recommended improvements on the traffic light system for products high in salt, fat and sugar, the Vegan Trademark’s certification and standards of vegan foods, the compulsory calorie numbers next to a menu item or food item, and “eco-scores” labelling.
The Food Standard Agency (FSA) is the UK’s regulatory body that sets the requirements surrounding labelling and terminology, among other things. However, with a food and drink industry worth over £104 billion — accounting for 20% of all UK manufacturing — it remains difficult to manage expectations, enforce restrictions, and provide sufficient fines that outweigh the profits.
Food labelling regulations are complex, often making it hard for consumers to understand. Suggested improvements by the FSA or public health groups such as clearer labelling systems are often met with resistance by big industries, mainly big sugar. This is evident in the fact the food industry spent £1 billion trying to stop the EU from implementing the UK’s traffic light system in 2010.
Today, the industry’s marketing teams are working their socks off to try and sell you their products. Many vegans are aware of how misleading terms like “grass-fed” and ”free-range” are within the agricultural industry, and the same is true of vegan products.
Buzzwords and sexy slogans like “natural”, “farmhouse” and “handmade” can be incredibly misleading to the fellow consumer trying to make a consciously healthy and ethical choice. Here are some of the key terms used on food labels, so you can make the best decision and see whether they’re misleading or not.
Top of the list for the most misleading food labelling term around is “natural”. To me, natural food products wouldn’t need an ingredients list, because it would be obvious what’s in them. Natural food should be something nature creates or grows and is thus not interfered with or produced by humans.
Sadly, that is not the case. Under FSA guidelines, “natural” can be a term used for any product containing ingredients that are produced by nature, but not all. We, therefore, have a situation whereby a product with an apple in it, but 40g of refined sugar, can call itself natural due to the presence of the former.
Likewise, terms like “natural goodness” and “nature’s way” are nothing but ambiguous emotive attempts to sell products, by implying to the customer these products are less refined and processed than in reality.
Vegan products tend to be assumed as healthy. If you’re avoiding processed food and going for natural ingredients and products, be cautious. After all, how “natural” can a product that has words like xylitol and phenylalanine on it be?
Homemade or handmade
“Homemade” and “handmade” seem very self-explanatory, in that they imply a level of domestication in the process of this product being made. No, it needn’t be a cake baked by your grandmother with a pinny on and a glass of sherry in one hand on an autumnal Sunday, but it should mean somebody made it or somebody could make it at home.
Alas, under current guidelines, one of the options for homemade is “simply made”, whatever that means, or can be made using traditional methods. This is slightly better than handmade, which allows for only one of the elements of the product to have been carried out that way. But fear not, food industry, as according to the FSA in 2008, “it would not… be against public expectation for a ‘handmade’ product to be produced entirely within an industrial setting”. Wouldn’t it?
“Fresh” is a term that can be useful for consumers where the term differentiates between products that are sold a short time after production or harvesting. Unfortunately, modern distribution methods make it difficult to determine when this term is being used legitimately and what “time” it is referring to.
The FSA recognises that the use of “fresh” for merely emotive appeal, such as “ocean-fresh” or “garden-fresh” should be avoided as they are essentially meaningless. Yet, without the legal requirement to put a time period (like “freshly prepared this morning”), consumers could be led to believe something has happened far more recently than it actually did.
A good example of this is supermarkets’ “freshly” baked bread. In reality, the bread is was partially cooked, frozen, thawed, and cooked again on different days and in different locations. More surprisingly, those “fresh” Pret baguettes were found to be a year old.
Wholegrain or wholewheat
For those following a plant-based diet, much emphasis might be put on “wholegrain” or “wholewheat” products due to their unprocessed, high-fibre, nutrient-dense nature.
However, products that are claimed to be “made with whole grains” only need to have one ingredient (of 2% or more) that features whole grains in order to use this phrase.
If it’s not the first or second ingredient on the back of the packaging, or the only ingredient, the quantity is usually too negligible to let this “wholegrain” claim determine your purchase.
Low-calorie or -fat
Finally, we have products claiming to be “light”, “low” or “reduced”, but they do not refer to any aspect of food in particular (calories, for example). In theory, they have no specific guidelines they need to follow.
Foods that are specified to be low- or reduced-fat only need to be 25% lower than the original product. This means a product could claim to be low in saturated fat but still have significantly high levels compared to another brand.
With “low-calorie”, it’s even worse, as it just needs to be fewer calories generally. There is no set minimum. Any gain from the reduced fat or calories is often negated from adding alternative processed ingredients such as sugar. They are setting arbitrary standards for food labels and exploiting the demonisation of both fat, sugar and calories as the culprit and cause of this obesity pandemic, as opposed to the source of food, which is misleading to consumers.
Arsenic is low in calories, but I wouldn’t recommend that for your diet. If you want foods low in calories and fat, think high water-content vegetables, and you can’t go wrong.
Other emotively used food labels that can be misleading marketing ploys are “pure”, “farmhouse”, “traditional”, “original” and, my personal favourite, “fruit-flavoured” (which, you guessed it, doesn’t have to have any fruit in it at all).
If in doubt, ignore the entirety of the packaging, go straight to the ingredients section and see what you recognise. Food ingredients have to be listed in hierarchical order of their weight, so always check the first three ingredients, as they’ll usually be making up the majority of the food you’re eating.
Moreover, if the product has more than two lines of ingredients, then this suggests the product is probably highly processed and not necessarily great for our bodies. The best and healthiest products you’ll ever find in a supermarket won’t have an ingredients list at all.