Confused by ‘label lingo’? Here’s a little guide to help you sort it out

Posted by
July 24, 2012

As a careful and conscientious shopper, do you often find yourself confused by the language used on food labels?

If so, I’d like to offer you the benefit of a short primer on some frequently used packaging terms and euphemisms.

Here, then, is the first edition of our Food Identity Theft Guide to ‘Label Lingo’:

Dilution diction: “beverages,” drinks,” cocktails” and “flavors”
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows the term  “diluted juice” to be used to describe products that are just that, it’s doubtful you’ll ever see it on a label. Instead, such liquid refreshments are usually described as “beverages,” “drinks” or “cocktails.” Any product that goes by one of these descriptions contains less than 100 percent juice — most always a whole lot less,  and in some cases even less than one percent. The only good news is that in most instances the label must specify just how much actual juice the beverage, drink or cocktail contains, a percentage that should be listed on the information panel.

The FDA considers “beverages that purport to contain juice” to be ones that not only say “juice” on the package, but also show pictures of fruits or vegetables. But don’t be deceived by such wholesome graphics. More often than not, a beverage, drink or cocktail will contain such added ingredients as high fructose corn syrup that you might wish to avoid.  Then there’s the “juice percentage exception”  that applies to certain drinks containing so little juice it may be not even possible to calculate the actual amount. In such cases you should find the term “flavor” or “flavored” instead, and no misleading fruit graphics. Products labeled as “100 percent juice” should be just that, and if they are made from concentrate are required to say so or else be described as “reconstituted.”

A new meaning of “sucker punch”?

Since a “punch” is not defined by the FDA, it can be  just about anything –  such as an artificially flavored beverage containing no fruit juice at all.

When  “healthy” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthful“

Healthy” is a pretty broad term that the FDA allows to be used not only on packaging but in brand names such as “Healthy Choice,” a line of microwavable products with some less-than-healthy ingredients. To describe itself as “healthy,” a product must meet certain requirements regarding its fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol content. That may sound good – until you check out the contents of some of these supposedly “healthy” dishes. Healthy Choice brand Cafe Steamers Lemon Garlic Chicken and Shrimp, for example, while having less than 300 calories per serving, also contains a  healthy helping of additives, including several forms of free glutamic acid, a coloring agent and the unknown ingredient simply called “flavorings.”

“Lean” means healthy too, right?

The term “lean” is defined by the FDA as containing less than 10 grams total fat and less than 4.5 g of saturated fat per serving, which may lead many diet-conscious consumers to believe that Stouffer’s “Lean Cuisine” brand is another one of the  “healthy” options in the frozen food aisle.  The Lean Cuisine website also uses such  buzzwords as “nutritious” and “goodness” and urges consumers to “be culinary chic,” which seems to imply that its products are smart and stylish.  In actuality, however, even if “Lean Cuisine” meets the FDA’s low-fat standard, ingesting such additives as high fructose corn syrup (the number-two ingredient in its glazed chicken entree) and artery-clogging partially hydrogenated oil, as well as yeast extract and isolated soy protein – both considered to be disguised forms of MSG – is anything but.

The perplexing phraseology of pet-food labels

Pet-food contents conform to a jargon all their own. There are dinners, platters, entrees, formulas and recipes, all which dictate how much of a particular ingredient the so-called “food” may contain.

When a pet food is called “beef” or “chicken” the named ingredient cannot be less than 95 percent  (including water), but add a descriptor such as “dinner,” “platter,” “entree,” or “formula,” and voila, the beef or chicken can now be as low as 25 percent including water! Exclude the water, and the “beef,” for example, can drop to 10 percent. Add another ingredient in the name, such as “rice,” and the two combined can now total down to 25 percent

What label “lingo” do you find confusing?  Post your picks at our Food Identity Theft Facebook page and we’ll try to decode it for you.