Food Labeling Nonsense

I thought I’d forgo my regularly scheduled “Dear Mark” Monday post (or “Dear Readers” as the case may be) for a subject very near and dear to my heart: the constantly-evolving, ever-confusing ways of the food rating labelers. Whether it’s the AHA-approved red “Heart Healthy” stamps that implore overweight diabetics to stuff themselves with “healthy” whole grains or the mention of antioxidant and fiber content somehow making that sugary breakfast cereal good for your kids, packaged food distributors seem to love making outlandish claims that bear little to no fruit. It’s incredibly effective, though, for the same reason people will believe anything they hear on TV or uttered by someone with an official title. We’ve already got a far-reaching bunch of bureaucrats at the FDA deciding which macronutrients to highlight and which to demonize on the official nutritional labels that adorn the back of every packaged food item, so the natural next step is a mishmash of extraneous labeling that tries to make nutritional recommendations based on the FDA data (which is itself based on flawed, misguided, or even blatantly false science).

Like most nutritionists, dietitians, and even doctors, they probably think they’re promoting the right message. After all, Conventional Nutritional Wisdom is pretty clear about what’s healthy and what’s not, and everyone else just follows suit. It’s just that they’re totally, utterly, completely incorrect about nearly everything. In some cases, they may even be willfully ignorant.

I almost feel bad for the folks behind NuVal (well, not really), one of the more “promising” nutritional rating labels to be rolled out in the coming months, because theirs seems to be the most earnest rating system. Based on the Overall Nutritional Quality Index algorithm, foods are given a rating, from 1 to 100 (with 100 supposedly being the healthiest). A “panel of nutrition and medical experts” (along with the good folks at Topco Associates) designed the algorithm, which takes over thirty different nutritional factors into consideration. Some of the favorable factors, like omega-3, vitamin, mineral, or antioxidant content, are unequivocally desirable (CW gets it right, sometimes); and I agree with some of the unfavorable factors, like trans fats and sugar content. But where they falter (and this is undoubtedly true of everyone in the food labeling game) is in selecting nutritional factors “based on their established relevance to public health as reported and published by the scientific community.” I have a great deal of respect for the scientific community at large, but as for what passes as mainstream nutritional science? No, thanks. I’ve seen what gets “reported and published,” and what gets cast aside and ignored.

Another similar rating system is nutrition iQ, which boasts a similar pedigree of unaffiliated, independent dietitians and medical experts. Instead of numbered ratings, they opt for colors. Red is bad (saturated fat, cholesterol, bad!), while green is great (vegetables, fruits – ok, I can get behind that). Various shades of orange indicate graininess and fibrousness, all “desirable.” Seems pandering and slightly condescending, but then again, I imagine that’s what they think of us.

And then there’s the Smart Choices labeling program – the poster child for industry meddling and conflict of interest. I know I shouldn’t be surprised or even disappointed, but I can’t help it. It’s just so blatant. Take a look at the participating companies and organizations (PDF): Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, General Mills, American Diabetes Association (oh, I’m sure these guys are regulating sugar and carbohydrate levels in foods to help patients manage insulin!), Nestle (I’d love to hear their thoughts on nutrition), to name just a few of the more ridiculous members in charge of labeling foods healthy or unhealthy. While there are the expected admonitions of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol levels, what amazed me was their brazenness in recommending up to 25% of calories from added sugar. Yes, added. That means a carb-rich cereal that’s already destined to become pure blood glucose can have an additional heaping of actual sugar and still get the green check mark on the box indicating “healthy.” Boy, diabetics sure must be thankful to have friends like these in their corner! Interestingly, the folks at Smart Choices have no plans to roll out a corresponding red check mark to indicate “unhealthy,” and I gotta admit – I’m a little disappointed. Their idea of “unhealthy” is likely more healthy than their approved foods.

The easiest way to avoid all this food label confusion is to – you guessed it – avoid food labels altogether. For the most part, we shouldn’t even really be eating foods that come in packages. Nut butters, bagged vegetables, shrink-wrapped organic meat – items like these are the exceptions (and these aren’t the type of mass-market processed foods that get the labels, anyway), of course, but as a general rule avoiding packaged foods is sound. If you follow the Primal Blueprint, of course, this isn’t really an issue at all. I imagine I’m preaching to the choir here, but it’s just too tempting, too fun to point out the dreck that masquerades as sensible nutritional advice (it’s slightly sad, too, but what do we have without laughter?). And hey, even if someone new stumbles across this post and never visits the site again, maybe they’ll think twice about the food labels coming soon to a store near you.

While I imagine their hearts are mostly in the right place, the food labelers cannot succeed. Oh, they’ll succeed as far as getting their message out about what’s healthy and what isn’t. They’ll have the renewed support of most nutritionists and dietitians, and the average citizen will see the green check or the 90+ rating on the granola bars and feel vindicated when they eat them – but they’ll be working against reality. People won’t get healthier just because they listen to the ratings; they’ll just get fatter and unhealthier. The various ratings agencies and nutritional “experts” simply cannot win this battle when they don’t even know who they should be fighting. The enemy is within, the fox is guarding the henhouse, and the real losers are the people who still buy into CW’s outdated, long-refuted garbage.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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55 thoughts on “Food Labeling Nonsense”

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  1. Very relevant post. I remember the days I would obsess over food labels reading everything and I knew everything when it came to calories, fat, protein etc….. Thankfully it has all become pretty irrelevant thanks to a Paleo/Primal lifestyle.

  2. There’s another factor to consider in labeling that bugs me. The ingredient list is generally rendered in something like a 4-point font. I don’t have too much trouble reading them, but I’m sure other people do, and you find the strangest things when you do read them. Like how come most (if not all) the Campbell’s soup line contains high-fructose corn syrup?

    Just my $0.02

  3. Ya, why is there HFCS in soup?? I don’t even put sugar in any soups I’ve ever made. Oh well, I quit buying Campbell’s yrs ago…

    hahaha – that teeny print is like that guy that talks really fast at the end of commercials! It’s stuff you really need to know, but not considered relevent?

  4. Love it!

    When I do buy packaged food, I look right for the ingredients first, THEN the fat/cho/pro breakdown. The least amount of ingredients wins!

  5. Sad, but true. Excellent post Mark. It’s writings like these that make progress though… keep it up.

  6. I agree with Ryan, the shortest ingredient list always wins if I buy something in a package. I can’t believe they are recommending 25% of calories come from ADDED sugars…for the “average” person that’s 500 calories. Or 2 Snickers bars in one day. How did that ever get past a real nutritionist of any sort?

    It’s so much easier to eat healthily when you buy as much food as possible without a label or barcode. So yay for farmers markets and produce sections.

  7. You can’t always go by the length of an ingredient list. I buy some excellent curry sauces from local businesses, and rather than say “spices” like you often see on big-brand labels, they’ll actually list every single spice, which can be 15 ingredients long!

    1. And you never really know with “spices” either. It could very well be hidden MSG or “yeast extract”.

  8. “The ingredient list is generally rendered in something like a 4-point font. I don’t have too much trouble reading them, but I’m sure other people do …”

    Good point. People are probably not supposed to read them.

    And people are certainly going to have trouble reading them if they’re regularly eating processed food (or according to the dangerous U.S. Dept of Agriculture “food pyramid” for the matter of that) because they’ll be chronically short of animal fats and hence of vitamin A, which is very important for sight.

    There’s an interesting story of a Canadian Indian who saved a surveyor’s eyesight by giving him fish eyes to eat:

    “He threw the fish out on the bank and told the prospector to eat the flesh of the head and the tissues back of the eyes, including the eyes, with the result that in a few hours his pain had largely subsided. In one day his sight was rapidly returning, and in two days his eyes were nearly normal.”

  9. Get ready for extra taxes on all foods that fail those ratings. 80/20 Ground Beef: Tax. Capn Crunch: no tax.

    For the sake of public health of course.

  10. I’m just tuning into this blog and might not be aware of the body of knowledge. So here’s a practical question about labels as they relate to lunch. I typically visit a sandwich shop like Subway during work days. Am I better off with a 6″ turkey sub (with veges, oil&vin) and a bag of chips? Or a 12″ sub but no chips? Should I consider the bag of chips evil and far worse than eating twice as much sandwich/fixings? Thanks for any insight, opinions etc.

    1. Actually, the Subway bun (both “whole wheat” and white) is at least as bad for you as the bag of chips. Enormous amount of highly refined wheat flour. If I was you, I’d pass on Subway entirely. Head over to your local deli, have them slice you a quarter pound of roast beef and a quarter pound of ham (or prosciutto) and get a simple salad on the side (with oil and vinegar as the dressing). Will cost about as much and at least be good for you.

      1. Perhaps I shoulda better qualified the Subway question. I have a high metabolism and don’t mind some carbs within reason. You’ll never convince me to give up bread with a sandwich. And the nature of my work day is that there are 5 sandwich shops on the block, but no delis or grocery stores. So it’s a large sandwich from someone, or a small sandwich plus cookie/chips from someone.

        Gotta admit I’ve been suspicious of how processed Subway’s wheat bread looks. Can I infer from your response that visiting a sandwich shop that uses grainier looking wheat bread will trump any of the Subway loafs? I can leave the cookie behind (me thinks) if the protein is filling enough…

        1. If you won’t pack a lunch get two 12 inchers and discard the buns.

  11. The labeling trick that makes me crazy is when they highlight that the product does not contain something it should never contain anyway – is anyone really that reassured by reading “trans-fat free” in a huge typeface? You wouldn’t advertise that something contained no nuclear waste. Or when a product like salsa is advertised as “fat free” (don’t get me started on how people assume fat free=good and vice versa). Perhaps this will distract from the 10-syllable preservative innocently hiding out at the end of the ingredient list. You also have to love the “no added sugar” claims on fruit juice that is already loaded with sugar in its natural form. But natural is good, right?

  12. Funny timing on this post.

    Just yesterday I was trying to explain labels to my housemate. She seemed genuinely surprised when I showed how she couldn’t trust the front.

    Her can of salmon said, “A source of Omega 3’s!” on the front of the label. Then I showed her my can of wild salmon and how they both contain 3’s, but her can was way higher in 6’s.

    Then again, I’m also trusting the nutritional panel and eating from a can, but… 😀

  13. There are a LOT of things wrong with labeling, but imagine if it wasn’t there at all. We’d be up the nutritional creek without an outboard.

    My “beefs” concern a) the brevity of subcategories; why not all three fat types, listing carbs as sugars, dietary, and starch. The b) part of the equation is the rounding up or down, mostly down, especially for small serving sizes.

    No rounding should be allowed.

    Gabe has good points and the answer is obvious: The public is too dumb to know that salsa doesn’t have transfats. Or any fat.

    And, of course, once again in American politics, the operating caveat is, “Follow the money.”

  14. Hi, I wonder if you can tell me about some food labels because I want to count my calories from time to time. Let’s say it’s canned tuna in water:
    It has “24 grams of protein per 100 grams of a product”
    And the can mass is 185grams while “mass of the tuna” is 130g
    Will the protein content of the whole can be 0.24 * 185g or 0.24 * 130g?
    Counting peas w/ carrot in jar nutrients is also a problem because it’s all floating in water 🙂 Can anyone tell me how to count it, because I’m quite confused? Thanks in advance

  15. It’s infuriating, really.
    On a related note, my 8 year old came home from the City government-run summer camp telling me that ‘people’ came to camp today to tell them about health. They taught them about the food pyramid, gave them a lecture about having skim instead of whole milk (with visual aids of ‘gross’ fat in containers), gave them samples of ‘healthy’ soda, and raffled off NutriGrain bars and other ‘healthy’ foods.

    Now go try to un-do all that brainwashing… poor kid is totally confused! *sigh*

  16. Well, as long as they keep listing ingredients, that is all I read labels for anyways. The husband realized we were out of garlic salt, and thoughtfully picked up a shaker jar full of it when he was shopping. I happened to be reading the jar labels while I was steaming eggs for brekkies…and I was totally freaked to find that sugar is one of the ingredients in the garlic salt! WHAT? I didn’t intend to buy GARLIC SUGAR! So, out went that jar. I stopped by the asian grocery and the Indian grocery, and I got plain powdered garlic and plain powdered onion. I can mix in my own salt, and NO SUGAR. Actually, we’ll just use them as-is, and add salt only as needed.

  17. While I find the addition of sugar in small quantities to foods that cannot possibly benefit from it puzzling and frustrating, I don’t sweat it when it is small in proportion.

    I buy these turkey sausage patties; they are tasty as heck and satisfy my pork craving. And there it is, way down in the ingredient list, maybe last, sugar. If you look at the carb data, the amount of sugar must be a tsp in a pound or something.

    Something I’ve observed about people generally, and oh, my mother is certainly one, most do not have a sense of proportionality. The amount of sugar one could possibly ingest in a “serving” of garlic salt (not powder?) must be a matter of grains. I’d be a lot more concerned about the salt than the sugar, BTW. Actually, to be honest, not at all even that. No one in my family has any history of high blood pressure or hear problems. Salt away!

    (Not really, I kicked it when I went PB…..OK, once in a rare while.)

    Not to worry, Halle.

  18. To the guy asking about Subway: I think you need to spend more time reading this website. Your “high metabolism” aside, if you’ll “never be convinced” to give up bread maybe you shouldn’t ask about it on a website that espouses not eating bread or any grain products.

    1. Perhaps you’re right. Two slices of Oroweat bread contain 36g of carbs, which is roughly 1/4 of the 100-150g of daily carbs recommended by the Primal Eating Plan. That would only leave me an allowance for about 25 cups of cooked asparagus daily. Clearly I would be unable to maintain a “primal” diet if I could only eat 25 cups of vegetables after crashing the diet with two slices of whole wheat bread.

      1. I should point out that the benefit of getting all of your carbohydrates from produce is that it MUST be spread throughout the day. By consuming 36g+ grams of carbohydrates at one time in ANY form will have a large effect on your bloodsugar/insulin levels.

  19. Building on what Timbuk posted, I had the mythological high metabolism most of my life, too. As a teenager, I could eat a plate of spaghetti overflowing off of the sides……and go for seconds. As late as age 50, I never paid any mind as to what or how much I was eating.

    Well, time passes…….. and I eventually wound up at 285 for almost a decade. As most of the forum posters here know, I’ve lost almost forty pounds.

    What I’m suggesting, OP, is start your better diet now. Besides needing to overcome a half century of habit, I could have avoided the years of bloat and now the pain of dieting if I had known better.

    You do. Ditch the bread, or at least really minimize it. Certainly don’t make it a daily thing, with or without chips (nasty!)

  20. PT Barnum had it right. There’s a sucker born every minute.
    In the health food section in our local wallyworld this “product” was on display. No Bull
    Wow an artifically flavored imitation food alternative.
    I’ll have the Venison thank you.

  21. Well, Joe, at least they pasteurized the artificial ingredients! Wouldn’t want something unhealthful.

    Don’t even need the venison, just real cheese?

  22. If Subway is really your only option then perhaps you could try their salads instead. I believe that you can get almost any of their sandwiches in salad form, which is probably not ideal but eliminates your carb v. carb dilemma. Or you could just bring your own lunch and save yourself money and a less than ideal food choice.

    1. Funny how folks got stuck on the word “Subway” in my OP and ignored (or didn’t read) my clarification that I have a choice of sandwich shops and I inferred that “grainier looking” whole wheat bread must be better than an S’way loaf.

      Knee jerk reactions are rarely helpful folks…

  23. Subway salads made with spinach (rather than the wilted Iceberg garbage) and loaded up on the veggies isn’t all that bad in a pinch. NO Dressing as I don’t think it is olive oil. AS much as I would like to have some roast beef or turkey with that, I can’t imagine their meat products being top of the line. All in all a raw veggie dish is more in line with Grok Grub.

  24. jdb, a lot of people do that, and not just here. I just left my political forum responding to a person who read TWO things into a posting of mine that I never came close to saying. Said individual does that a lot. Human nature, I guess.

    IIRC, Subway’s oil is a blend of Frankenoil, the canola crap-ola and something else. They have wine vinegar, I believe. If they do have olive oil you can bet your carbohydrates that it is not Extra Virgin.

  25. Was I being too specific when I said Subway? Many sandwich shops offer salads instead. And yes two slices of Oro wheat bread would drastically reduces paleo-ness of your meal whatever the carb content. It isn’t the carbs in the bread it’s the grain. And no, grainy-er looking bread is not better as it is still grain. Search this site for other articles about grains and why they just aren’t paleo.

  26. While I imagine their hearts are mostly in the right place, the food labelers cannot succeed.

    You give food manufacturers far too much benefit of the doubt, Mark.

    I believe they know EXACTLY what they are doing. I believe they purposely fund subjective, biased studies to “prove” that saturated fats and cholesterol are “bad” so that the average Sheeple in the grocery store will look at their “Heart Healthy” and “FAT FREE” or “REDUCED FAT” or “LITE” labeling, and mindlessly purchase it, thinking they are eating ‘healthy.’

    I’ve done a bit of research into this topic, and let me tell you…all of those “headlines” that declare saturated fats and red meat as dangerous to your health, are almost always the results of statistical manipulations of data acquired from food survey questionnaires…NOT real scientific studies involving controlled studies with testable, repeatable results that show a direct link between fats/red meats and heart disease and cancer.

    Tom Naughton of Fat Head has an interesting blogpost on this: Warning: Bologna May Cause Cancer Headlines

    I did my own digging as well, and also found that those PSAs that have been playing on radio stations across the country (the most popular featuring Anthony Hopkins – aka Hannibal Lecter advocating Veganism…lol), all advocating a “plant based diet” as the means of preventing cancer, is sponsored by the Cancer Project Institute.

    After some digging into their website, I come to find out that they base their assertions from reports generated by questionnaires!

    The survey in question comes from NutritionQuest. Look at this highly suspect questionnaire…

    Now consider…organizations advise the populace to avoid meat and dairy foods to prevent cancer…based on a self reported food survey that doesn’t even distinguish the difference between butter and margarine?!?!?

    This is so insane, I can attribute it to nothing other than a deliberate and purposeful attempt to influence the conventional wisdom to make people think that “Plant Based” foods are healthy…i.e. grain products, vegetable oils, and other processed foods that are “plant based,” all manufactured by giant, agricultural corporations. I have no evidence, but I certainly would not be surprised to find major contributors to orgs like the Cancer Project were tied to Big Ag…and that Big Ag is certainly the same malefactors behind the push to promote deceptive labeling to keep the public consuming their garbage for their profit.

  27. First time here for me and bad eating habits galore.I am in love with a sandwich shop called Jimmy Johns here in Michigan.I eat the tuna sandwich with mayo and the best bread I have ever eaten.How bad can this be?

    1. I thought you were poking fun, but I googled Jimmy Johns and found it really exists. Refer to the Subway bashing above (admittedly their bread looks highly processed) and realize that you and I are doomed.

  28. I am hooked on bread in any form.Because of Mark I sometime have scrambled eggs without toast and am quite satisfied.
    I am a 60 year old balding fat guy and want to have a active life pain free.

  29. Bruno, could you consider trying for a month to eliminate carbs? Since Mark has the upcoming 30-day primal challenge, plan it out. Figure out your meals and snacks ahead so you don’t get caught in the “I have nothing to eat so I’ll just grab a sandwich”. I’ve only been eating primal for 2-3 months but the difference is amazing, excess fat has literally melted away, my energy levels have improved and as a frequent headache (stress, migraine, and random headaches) sufferer I have noticed at least a 50% reduction in the occurrence of various headaches.

    I am striving now to incorporate more exercise of the weightbearing variety as I already spend about 20 hours a week walking for one of my jobs. More muscle = an even leaner, healthier me.

  30. sounds like a good plan I am sure ready for some good change in my life.I was wondering if the heavy carb load has anything to do with the sinus area?

  31. This is exactlywhat my mother has been telling me since I was a ‘younger’ child (I’m 16 now).

    I don’t know if the product ‘Danone Actimel’ is available in America, but here in Ireland it’s a pretty big thing. The advertisements claim that 1 actimel a day helps to boost your immune system. The advertisements, shown especially during children’s programs, feature a group of cartoon ‘heroes’ called Team Actimel who get to work defending the child from germs and diseases as soon as the actimel (a yoghurt drink) is consumed. So every parent in the country stocks up on the product – after all how can the good old television be lying to them.

    The scary thing is that in actual fact the ONLY scientific investigation done showed that it did not make the test subjects sick.

    I’ve also noticed over the last couple of months that breads with ‘wholegrain’ on the front are rarely 100% wholegrain. The ingredients will show wholegrain flour 26%, wheat flour 25%. This shouldn’t be allowed!!

  32. undoubtedly, this masquerade to con people into buying the product tells us that there is more to the puzzle.

    chemical warfare through our foods. MSG, citric acid, and other preservatives are a form of terrible warfare on the people of the world~~

  33. Tammy, you are way off base scientifically…which is the bottom line.

    MSG is a natural product. It enhances flavors, just like common table salt. I don’t know of all the sources, but one is a byproduct of sugar beet processing. (Almost 40 years ago I worked in a sugar beet processing factory for a few months. Beet molasses is bitter to humans, so it went to animal feed. But they extracted the MSG first.)

    Citric Acid is also a very natural product and of no consequence to human ingestion. It works as a preservative because it lowers the pH to the point that bacteria can’t survive. Just like vinegar and pickling.

    It is very important that in the battle with the ADM’s and Kelloggs of the world and the USDA that we are accurate in our science(s). We must educate ourselves to move past mythology or the cascade effect (how the “lipid hypothesis” became mainstream!) As a sort of scientist, I get frustrated with plain old error, let alone opinions w/o foundation.

    The bad boys are not MSG (granted, some people have a sensitivity) or citric acid. They are soy because of its estrogenic effects, grains generally, grain oils. At least, that’s where I am at these days.

    Reasonably scientifically speaking, of course!

    1. It’s interesting how Asians have consumed soy for the last 5,ooo or so years and still have lower rates of cancer (etc) than Americans.
      Then again, Asians eat fermented, traditionally prepared soy products, none of that hexane treated junk you find in vegetarian burgers and cream cheese.
      And even then, not in “it’s a health food therefore eating more = better health” amounts.
      Moderation is key, peoples 😉

  34. As a person with food allergies, label reading is a big deal. You cannot believe that “dairy free” and “milk free” are not the same thing. I’m actually taking a seminar with Eat, Live, Learn to learn this new foreign language called label reading. I will be putting more of this info out there in future posts. I’m the Dairy-Free Examiner, which is naturally “paleo”.

  35. Really, Dave from Hawaii.

    I distinctly said that some people have problems with MSG.

    I also said, and my main point to Tammy was, it is not a preservative. It is not.

    Please don’t read what I didn’t say.

  36. Lessons I’ve learned over the years concerning various products, especially packaged foods. If one must use a packaged product, and sometimes it is a necessity then:

    1. Do not believe any statement on the front of the package. It is for advertisement purposes only. It may be true but it is intended to hide other truths of more importance.
    2. The only part of the package that even approaches the truth is the food labeling grid that lists amounts of carbs, sodium, fiber, etc. It is not the whole truth of course but it can be used as a guideline. I use it only for the amount of carbs and sodium. And finally but most important,
    3. Never ever never never trust the government. The people that make the labeling rules and regulations are politicians that are bought and sold on a daily basis by the large corporations. Nobody believes a politician when he/she makes a speech so why believe the end result of a law that was created by said politician?

  37. That’s a pretty broad brush there, James, about governments. You do hit the nail on the head about the corporations owning – I’ll insert this – most of the politicians.

    Just look at the rounding down rules for an example of deceit on nutritional labels.

  38. Bayou…Oh I agree whole heartedly. When shopping my philosophy is “If God didn’t make it, don’t eat it.” If it needs a label so that you know what your eating you shouldn’t eat it. You should know what it is by looking at it. So basicly I am restricted to the fruit and veggie isle and the meat and fish case. Careful on the meats alot are injected with “A solution” no thanks.

  39. But when did God start growing fruit with those little ID numbers?


  40. Bread/grains are eaten just about everywhere and have been for eons. It’s real food, you bunch of wackos.