Thursday, April 7, 2011

In Food Labels We Trust?

When watching campaign speeches, reading op-eds, reading book reviews, etc..., most of us know we're partaking of opinion, which may, or may not, reflect reality from our perspective. We accept that going in. However, when we read labels at the grocery store, we expect to be reading rock solid facts about what we're planning to put into our bodies. Recently, students from Trinity High School in New York City, revealed that some food labels may in fact be as misleading as typical campaign promises.

Students were teamed up with scientists from the Rockefeller University and the American Museum of Natural History to see if they could extract DNA from common household items such as feather dusters. During the project, they tested 66 foods from various grocery stores in the area, and discovered something startling. Eleven of the sixty-six groceries tested weren't actually what their labels said they were.
Mislabeled Foods Included:*

  • "1. Shark meat is what was advertised in the store but the DNA testing proved it was Lates niloticus, a fresh water fish from Africa - commonly known as Nile Perch.

  • 2. A product labeled "anchovy" came back as Protosalanx chinensis, which is actually not anchovy but a type of smelt fish.

  • 3. One item was labeled "red snapper," but the DNA testing showed it was Lutjanus malabaricus, which is actually a different type of fish called the Malabar blood.

  • 4. At a specialty store, a product labeled "sheep's milk cheese" was tested and proven to be cheese made with cow's milk.

  • 5. Another item labeled "sturgeon caviar" was tested and the DNA came back as Plyodon spathula, a fish commonly known as the Mississippi paddlefish.

  • 6. "Pacific Ocean smelt" was what was advertised in the store, but the DNA testing proved it was actually Odontesthes gracilis. It is not smelt, but a silverside family of fish.

  • 7. "Frozen yellow catfish" DNA tested as Odontesthes gracilis. According to the fish database, this is not yellow catfish.

  • 8. A dog treat labeled as "venison" (deer meat) tested as beef.

  • 9. A fish sample that was labeled "mackerel" was tested and came back as Sardinella atricauda, a fish commonly known as Bleeker's black tip sardinella.

  • 10. One product that was labeled "Jewfish" came back with DNA that showed it was actually Nemipterus furcosus, a fish commonly known as fork-tail threadfin bream.

  • 11. A product labeled in Chinese translated to "Branchiostoma lancelet amphioxus, but DNA tests proved it was Salangichthys microdon, a fish commonly known as Japanese ice fish."

  • The statistical implication is that one out of every six foods we buy is mislabeled. Sure, it's theoretically possible that these kids just happened to pick the only eleven mislabeled foods on the shelves, but the proposal of such an explanation would make even the most reckless gambler balk. Mathematically speaking, it's far more likely that these eleven samples represent a portion of what's available from our stores' shelves and counters. However, the one in six ratio can't be thought of as a solid number until the project has been duplicated repeatedly with much larger sample sizes. Nevertheless, it's unfortunately clear that a level of deception exists regarding the foods we buy.

    Some people may shrug and say, "Paddlefish eggs probably taste as good as sturgeon caviar." These people are missing the point. Substituting cheaper goods for the genuine article is fraud, pure and simple. Beyond the issue of legally defined deception however, lies a much more important consideration. We have the fundamental right, unwritten though it may be, to know what we're putting into our bodies.

    Shoppers depend on labels for a variety of important reasons. Some people of faith need to eat Kosher or vegan in order to walk a particular spiritual path. Others avoid eating non-sustainable fish and other ingredients for moral and ecological reasons. Then there are those who have food allergies, diabetes, and other conditions, in which case the wrong ingredient could sicken or kill the eater.

    The question is, what can shoppers do to protect themselves? I've been hunting for the answer to this question all week. After reading I don't know how many articles; emailing the FDA, a professional chef/caterer, a much read cheese writer; and participating in a number of other conversations, I must report the answer to be a resounding, "not much."

    I'm lucky. From where I live, I have access to two very nice Farmers' Markets, three if I take the train to Portland State University, where I can buy produce, and a few other staples, directly from the source. Plus, my favorite cheese monger and wine seller happens to be my sister in law. She's educated enough in what she sells that I can trust what I buy from her shop.

    Yet, even with Farmers' Markets and gourmet specialty shops, I eventually have to go to my local supermarket for corn flakes, canned soup, and baloney. Without my Bat-DNA-Testing-Kit from my utility belt, I pretty much have to accept a label's word as to a package's content, unless I'm super-familiar with a particular meat or fish, or it's a glaring error (trout in place of salmon).

    I really don't like the fact that we have no way to independently determine the contents of our food, now that we know some labels are misleading. Still, the fact that "some are fraudulent" means that most are legally accurate. Keep in mind though, legally accurate labels can be deceptive if shoppers are unfamiliar with the legal definitions of terms companies routinely use to describe their products. With this in mind, I've researched some food labeling terms and clarified their actual meanings.

  • Fortified, enriched, added, extra, and plus: These terms mean that nutrients, such as minerals and fiber, have been removed to make room for vitamins to be added during processing. If fiber matters to you, look for the terms 100% whole-wheat bread and high-fiber.

  • Fruit drink: This means you're buying a fruit flavored beverage, most likely containing little or no real fruit juice. If your intent is to put actual fruit juice into yourself and/or your kids, look for products that list the percentage of juice in the product.

  • Made with wheat, rye, or multi-grain: Again, without the word "whole" as a modifier, such products may contain very little whole grain.

  • Natural: This can be the most misleading term of all, since it only means the manufacturer started with a natural source. Once it's processed though, the end result may not resemble anything found in nature. If it's important to you to eat foods provided by mother Earth, or close to it, look for the terms "100% All Natural" and "No Preservatives."

  • Organic food: First, ALL produce, meats, fish, poultry, dairy products, eggs, and grains ARE organic, since they're carbon based and were once alive. They're even 100% organic. If you want to buy foods which are produced using environmentally sound methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives, look for labels that say "Certified Organically Grown."

  • Sugar-free, fat-free and trans-fat-free: These terms DON'T mean the foods in question have NO sugar, fat, or trans-fats. They mean, the foods contain less than .5 g of sugar per serving, less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving, and less than .5 g trans-fat per serving. None of these terms means the product in question is necessarily low-calorie. The manufacturer may have added ingredients to compensate for missing sugars and fats by boosting flavor, and the product may have no fewer calories than its sugary fatty counterpart. If you're counting calories, you're far better off paying attention to the number of calories per serving.

  • Lite: This term, when applied to food and beverages, describes a food or drink that contains fewer calories than usual, but may not necessarily contain a low number of calories. If product X has 450 calories per serving, X Lite may have 425 calories per serving. Again, pay attention to the number of calories per serving.

  • Ham in natural juices, Ham water added, and Ham and water product: These product labels, in the order listed above, indicate how much water remains in the ham after its final processing. If the ham has less than 20.5% but is at least 18.5% protein, it can be called "ham with natural juices". A ham that is at least 17.0% protein and up to 10% added solution can be called "ham water added". Finally, "ham and water product" refers to a cured hind leg of pork product that contains any amount of added water. Buying a "ham and water product" may very well mean you're buying more water than meat. A"HAM" only label means the product contains 20.5% protein and no water, or a minimal amount of naturally occurring water.

  • Happy Shopping! :-)

    *List of mislabeled foods found at


    1. Very interesting James. ALL your posts are interesting and informative. LOVE them. Keep up the great work!! :)

    2. I bet most consumers wouldn't realize they were eating sheeps' milk cheese instead of cows' milk. If you eat a lot of cheese (like some of us do) you might be suspicious, though. To me, the main difference is that sheeps' milk tends to have a sweeter, nuttier flavor. Hard and semi-hard sheep's milk cheeses also have a texture that tends to have an oily quality to it and isn't as dry and crumbly as cows' milk tends to be (think of an Ossau Iraty sheeps' milk from the French Pyrenées vs the texture of cheddar). That being said, if I bought cheese in a speciality store I'd trust it was labeled correctly and wouldn't analyze the flavor and texture of every bite. Moral of the story: buy from a small, local cheese shop!

    3. Jennifer: Yes, buy from a small shop you can trust. I agree completely. Thank you. :-)

      Jenny: Thank you Babe. ;-)

    4. The misleading messages on supermarket foods are, I think, a fit topic for satire - I have designed some spoof labels and put some examples of these on my blog: