Why you should never trust labels on food
By Alex Renton
Why you should NEVER trust labels on food: ‘Fresh’ food that isn’t fresh. ‘Natural’ colours that are chemicals and ‘real’ fruit juice that only 5 per cent fruit
A few days ago, I was out food shopping with my five-year-old daughter, Lulu. ‘Daddy,’ she squealed, rushing up to me with a box of Mr Kipling’s vanilla-filled Angel cake slices in her hand, ‘can I have these, please?’
I glanced at the packaging quickly. Even in the midst of a rushed family shop, I was still concerned — as many parents would be — about the food I’m feeding my daughter.
‘No artificial colours or flavours. No hydrogenated fat,’ it read in large letters on the front. Reassured, I popped the packet in our trolley.
But back in the comfort of home, I took a closer look (and I needed my reading glasses for the small print) and pretty quickly concluded that I’d been had.
While the packet claimed there were no ‘artificial’ colours, I found — under a tiny heading of colourings — ‘titanium dioxide, cochineal and lutein’, chemical compounds I’d never heard of before (and more of which later).
And while it also insisted there were no artificial flavours, why couldn’t I find any real vanilla extract, when the cakes were so clearly labelled ‘with a delicious vanilla filling’?
In fact, the number of ingredients in the cakes totalled 35, of which almost none I’d ever heard of before.
So far, so utterly confusing. But it turns out I’m not alone.
Last week, a survey by consumer watchdog Which? found that food label claims such as ‘pure’, ‘fresh’, ‘non-artificial’, ‘natural’ and ‘real’ are largely unregulated and are confusing shoppers.
For example, 33 per cent of shoppers thought ‘real fruit’ meant fruit was the main ingredient (even though this was wildly off the mark); and 43 per cent believed products labelled ‘juice drink’ must contain at least a quarter fruit juice (again, something they found to be untrue, with some juice drinks containing barely 5 per cent juice from concentrate).
So how and why are our food manufacturers allowed to get away with this? And what is the truth about our ‘natural’ food labels?
Flavoured v Flavour
For food manufacturers, ‘flavoured’ and ‘flavour’ mean totally different things. The first, very importantly, means natural ingredients are used in the production.
However, the second means that the ‘flavour’ can be artificial — created by a chemical such as isoamyl acetate, an organic compound formed from isoamyl alcohol and acetic acid.
It is often used in many pear and banana-flavour sweets and snacks because it gives off that odour in its reduced form.
However, even more often it is used in solvents, and until recently was used extensively in the aircraft industry for stiffening and wind-proofing fabric flying surfaces. Not the most appealing of thoughts.
The real problem — and one that we should all be looking out for — is that manufacturers are beginning to combine the use of ‘real’ ingredients with synthetic ones, so it’s often impossible to avoid eating chemicals alongside your ‘real’ fruit.
So, for example, while some products, such as Nestle’s Munch Bunch Fromage Frais, boast of being made ‘with real fruit puree’, a look at the lifesmall print shows they also contain ‘flavouring’.
What this ‘flavouring’ is exactly is not labelled on the packet (that is not a legal requirement), but it is often synthetic — and, worryingly, how much of the synthetic flavouring is used does not have to be stated.
No artificial colouring
What you and I call artificial and what the food industry calls artificial are surprisingly different.
While we might expect food with no artificial colouring to be made only with colours occurring from fresh ingredients, there are a number of ‘natural’ colours that appear to be anything but.
Cochineal, the commonly used red colouring I found in Mr Kipling’s ‘no artificial colouring’ vanilla slices, is made from the eggs of a beetle that lives on cactuses.
Natural? Well, according to the rules it is. You may argue that petrol is natural, in so much as the crude oil it comes from was once a plant.
Titanium dioxide, another of the ‘natural’ colourings I found in the vanilla slices — and commonly used in other foods — is a white pigment made from the rust of the metal titanium,which is mined and purified before being used in paint as well as cakes.
Lutein is extracted from marigolds and is also used to make battery chickens’ skin look nice and yellow. ‘Not artificial’ does not mean natural — simply ‘not synthetic’.
The truth is that these and many other colours are used principally because they are cheaper, and they also last longer than colours from, say, fruits.
Tradition and fierce lobbying by the powerful food industry has kept them on the list of ‘not artificial’. The difference with Mr Kipling is that they list their colours: many manufacturers now merely put ‘colouring’ or ‘naturally sourced colouring’ on the ingredients list.
But if a label does not boast about using fruit-derived colours, you can be sure they’re using some you may well find less attractive.
Another much-abused word.
‘Real fruit’, often used in ice lolly and soft drinks packaging, can mean fruit concentrate (which is a boiled-down and stabilised ‘concentrate of fruit’).
And there is no law governing how much ‘real fruit’ you have to use in order to put the label on the front of your product: most ice lollies are largely sugars and water, with the fruit content being one part in 20.
This is another term that has more or less lost any meaning in food. A recent Trading Standards Officers’ survey found more than 80 different uses of it in food marketing, of which 79 per cent were ‘unacceptable or misleading’, and in 1989 the then Ministry of Agriculture issued voluntary guidelines asking manufacturers to avoid phrases such as ‘natural goodness’ or ‘nature’s way’. It was ignored.
Children’s favourite Capri-Sun tropical juice drink boasts ‘nothing artificial at all’ on the label, yet read the ingredients and you’ll find artificial sweeteners such as acesulfame K and sodium saccharin, both chemical compounds that some experts warn could be carcinogenic.
I found only tiny amounts of fruit concentrate listed, and more sugar content than you’d find in most real fruit.
‘Juice drink’ is another of those labelling red-lights: according to European legislation ‘fruit juice’ and ‘fruit juice from concentrate’ must have minimum amounts of fruit. But ‘fruit drink’ has no rules.
The only way to guarantee a ‘real’ fruit drink is to go to the greengrocer, buy some fruit, cut it up and juice it in a mixer yourself.
All of us need to eat fat as part of a healthy diet. The key question is what sort and how much.
Food manufacturers are faced with a quandary — fat carries taste, and if you want to take it out of a product you usually have to replace it with things that consumers have been warned against: salt, sugar and flavourings.
McVitie’s Chocolate Digestive Lights, for instance, contain 30 per cent less fat than normal chocolate digestives, but they also contain more sugar than the full-fat ones.
Tricks played with ‘fat’ on labels include ‘lower fat’ — which often merely means that a high-fat product has had the content trimmed a little, not that it is healthy.
Food manufacturers have found there’s money to be made by exploiting the fact that few of us spend much time studying a product — research says the average time spent at the supermarket shelf before making a choice is seven seconds. So we rely on trust and logos we associate with health.
Kellogg’s Special K, originally just a breakfast cereal aimed at slimmers, has been expanded to a wider brand including snack bars that contain little fat, but a huge amount of sugar.
Its 23g bars which boast of having fewer than 90 calories actually have more than a third of their weight in sugar — twice as much as is contained in some ice creams, and putting them well into the Food Standards Agency’s ‘high in sugar’
In 2008, Innocent, a brand that specialises in healthy drinks, had to withdraw an advertisement for a ‘simple, natural’ fruit-flavoured water, called This Water, because it failed to mention that each bottle contained up to 89g per litre of added sugar.
If there’s no sugar then there will almost certainly be other sweeteners, such as aspartame and acesulfame K.
This much-abused term has troubled government regulators for decades. Effectively, it means little more than ‘not frozen’ and uncooked — but products can have been chilled or, as with fish, kept on ice.
Salads, fruits and meat can be kept in ‘modified atmosphere’ packaging that uses gases or vacuum to stop them going off.
‘Freshly squeezed’ means something should have been processed within two weeks of its use-by date, and there are rules governing ‘farm fresh’ poultry and eggs.
Under EU rules, ‘fresh’ poultry is just a term governing how the meat is chilled, not how long it has been since the bird was killed.
‘Extra fresh’ eggs must be on sale less than nine days after laying. ‘Best before’ is a date 28 days after the egg was laid. But ‘fresh’ is so vague it is regularly abused.