Misleading Food Labeling a Cause for Concern Among Consumers and Food Manufacturers

Misleading Food Labeling a Cause for Concern Among Consumers and Food Manufacturers

Consumers are becoming more and more skeptical when it comes to broad, generic health claims on food labels.

“Cholesterol-free,” “low-fat,” “super light,” “sugar-free” or “anti-ageing” are all examples of believable claims on food labels. However, only two of these claims are legally permitted in the European Union. Since consumers are more health-conscious than ever, some food manufacturers are pulling out all the stops to convince people to purchase highly processed and unhealthy products with misleading food labeling. 

According to a new survey from consumer research platform Attest, 60 percent of US consumers are actively seeking food and beverage products to support their overall health. The survey, however, prompted widespread confusion when it came to determining what is and is not healthy thanks to misleading food labeling.

As part of its research, Attest showed participants six varieties of granola bars and asked them to identify which was the healthiest choice. Comparing the responses to the Nutri-Score system, which converts the nutritional value of products into a simple ranking system, only nine percent of respondents correctly identified the healthiest choice, while 13 percent selected the lowest-ranking option.

Related: What Do Food Companies Mean When They Advertise Products as “Sustainable?”

Health-related messaging was a key source of confusion, with misleading food labeling including phrases like “naturally flavored,” “whole grains” and “100 calories” swaying wrong choices. Around half (46 percent) of participants said they worry that wellness products aren’t really healthy when shopping for them, while 41 percent said they are concerned that the health benefits of ingredients haven’t been scientifically proven.

The survey, along with heightened skepticism among consumers, are indications that food and beverage companies are no longer getting away with misleading food labels. In fact, class action litigation against food manufacturers hit a record high last year, as consumer advocates fought back against food labels that mislead consumers.

Rather than focusing on general claims that products were “all-natural,” recent lawsuits are more specific. They tend to focus on whether an ingredient or flavor is artificial, the origins of products, the absence or presence of ingredients on a label, or claims about “ancillary representations,” like whether a product is really sustainably farmed or humanely raised.

One such class-action lawsuit filed in August 2021 alleged that Hormel Foods deceptively labeled its Black Label Center Cut Bacon as containing 25 percent less fat than its regular bacon. The plaintiffs argued that the claimed fat reduction is the result of a smaller serving size rather than an actual reduction. 

The Attest survey also asked participants about potential solutions for overcoming common misleading food labels. Respondents cited packaging as the top area brands should focus on if they want to increase purchase intent. Focusing on clear nutrition labeling was the top response in terms of things consumers said brands should do to increase trust in their products.

Meanwhile, the ongoing fight over misleading food labeling has drawn the attention of Congress. A bill introduced last year in the House would overhaul food labeling through a system of symbols to reflect how healthy the products truly are. Importantly, the bill would also direct the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to define the terms “natural,” “healthy,” “artificial,” and “synthetic,” as well as establish an added sugars level that would automatically disqualify the food from including any health claims.

While food industry lobbyists are sure to fight it, it remains to be seen whether passage in the divided Congress will be certain.