Five Meaningless Food Claims You Should Know

all natural

Consider this a public service announcement. You’re food conscious and so are we. That’s why deceptive or misleading marketing claims on our food and drinks get us a little riled up. You know your gluten-free diet inside and out, and you deserve to bring the rest of your diet along for the ride. So buckle in – we’re going to help you decode (and sometimes debunk!) those ever-popular claims that you always see at the grocery store. Put ‘em up, marketers – we’re ready to go toe-to-toe with you and some of your most distracting claims.

1. All Natural

It may sound like a cut and dry claim, but it’s actually a gray area. Currently, the FDA lacks strict policies requiring companies to substantiate an “all-natural” claim, resulting in companies claiming anything and everything as natural. One juice company identified itself as all-natural despite containing cyanocobalamin. Not only do we not know what that is, we can’t pronounce it on a good day. Bottom line: claiming “all natural is about as reliable as your aunt insisting that her famous fried chicken is gluten-free because she rinses it off first. When it doubt, check the ingredients yourself and see how they really measure up. You’re smart, trust your instincts.

2. Fat-Free, Sodium-Free

While there are legitimate products out there that do a great job reducing fat and sodium without loading up on other harmful additives, there are unfortunately more offenders than avengers. We’re looking at you, unnamed rainbow chewy candy company. Remember that time you slapped a FAT-FREE label on your sugar-filled fruit chews?

There’s nothing wrong with being a candy company. In fact, we splurge on delicious candy now and again, too. But there is something wrong with deceptive marketing claims that trick customers into thinking that they’re consuming anything healthier than candy. Candy is candy, and we all know that if you consume enough, it’ll find a way to turn into fat. Your best defense: study up on the most common “free” claims out there, and maybe give this NPR story on responsible sugar labeling a listen. We’re all in this together.

3. Naturally Gluten-Free

Let’s break this down: “naturally gluten-free” simply means that gluten is not a naturally-occurring element of your product. We’re talking apples, corn, sparkling water, eggs, steak, tortilla chips – even vodka. However, that claim doesn’t speak to the reality that a product may very likely come in contact with gluten during harvest, manufacturing, and preparation – this is why the FDA designation matters. Defined as containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten, we’d much rather see a claim that actually means something specific and can be verified.

When you really think about it, “naturally gluten-free” barely gets you in the door. For those with a serious intolerance or Celiac Disease, we’ll still have to ask our servers and food providers the same questions we always do: details about the preparation process, cross contamination, added ingredients and seemingly-innocent spices. Give us a legal designation or give us death (side note: we’d prefer you just give us the designation). (Extra side note: a trusted third-party “certified gluten-free” designation would make our day.)

4. Cage-Free Eggs

We know,  we’re wandering into the treacherous territory of animal welfare – but hear us out. There’s no denying that the (relatively) new jargon on egg carton labels bears a closer reading. We’ve all been there: you make a quick stop at the store to grab a dozen eggs, and you’re confronted with a slew of seemingly interchangeable choices. Cage-free, free-range, pasture-raised, cruelty-free. What does it all mean? Check out this guide on egg carton labels from the Humane Society and you’ll quickly learn that opting for cage-free eggs isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be (sorry).

In fact, cage-free often means that chickens are raised in dangerously cramped pens, and sometimes face mutilation to keep the peace in the pens. There are some sophisticated caging systems that give chickens the peace and quiet they deserve, but farmers face a disadvantage if they don’t claim cage-free. On the flip side, the popular demand for cage-free and free-range eggs has brought giant corporations like McDonalds to the light, resulting in a commitment to buy cage-free eggs. That’s progress, but do we have a universal definition of what cage-free means? If opting for more humane animal products is a priority for you, do your research and decode the smoke and mirrors that currently plague the industry. Got some insight for those interested in changing their ways? Share your wisdom with us in the comments below!

5. Sugar-Free

Truth: sugar can be very bad for you. Depending on your age and  health, it can be downright dangerous. But you know what else is bad? Artificial sweeteners. While table sweeteners (sucrose) are generally regarded as thumbs-down for your heart, consider the consequences of some of the most common substitutes. Check out the labels on your favorite sugar-free sweets and you’ll find artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and Sucralose (Splenda). Why should you care? Because research has shown that consuming these chemical sweeteners in excess can lead to adverse side effects like stomach upset, blood sugar issues, and even some types of cancerYour best bet is to opt for sweeteners you can wrap your brain around – think fruits and fruit juices, honey, molasses, etc. Even better: monitor your sugar intake and cut it out when you can. A balanced diet is the best diet.

At the end of the day (and the beginning of the grocery list), the truly savvy shopper will look past flashy marketing claims and turn to a product’s ingredients and nutrition label to decipher its true value. Our golden rule is to raise an eyebrow at any product boldly claiming to be truly “free” of something – odds are they’ll overcompensate for it in a way that could be just as dangerous. That said, we love businesses that can back up their claims, and we say more power to them. If you know of a company doing good work in health and wellness, shout them out so we can support their business and spread the good word.

Now it’s your turn: which food claims make you see red? Which food companies do you trust and value most? Share your tips and tricks with us in the comments below!

  • patricia sup

    key is using these foods to excess.

    • Gary

      I’m not sure what you mean by your post, do you mean “Don’t eat these foods in excess? I think just about anything in moderation may not KILL you, but as this article states, they (FDA) are not giving us TRUE information.

      • theglutenfreebar

        Hi Gary – I think Patricia must have meant “not eating these foods in excess”. We all just have to be a little more critical of the claims that food companies can make as there is such a grey area and for a lot of companies it’s a marketing ploy that they can get away with because there are no repercussions from the FDA.

  • John Fields

    Cage free chicken eggs sounds good, but understand chickens will eat anything including their own poop. That’s why they are in cages to begin with so they won’t they eat their own excrement

    • charlot

      Not true– from one who’s family had chickens in the backyard! Chickens eat grain, bugs, worms and grasses–they chew on bits of gravel–best tasting chickens are on the ground all day long pecking at whatever–developing muscles–and a righteous size for a chicken is 3 pounds– a baking hen 5lbs. These HUGE birds you see have been fed hormones and I am frankly scared to eat them.

    • Gary

      …so you’re saying chickens are like dogs, they won’t poop where they sleep, or is it that the cage is so SMALL that it is impossible for them to reach?

  • Zoetje

    The ‘naturally gluten free food’ claim also irritates me. Just noticed that our favorite Maseca corn meal (with the official GF logo) has a new packiging with exactly that claim ‘corn is a gluten free food’ and a new (not official) logo. I needed to send 2 e-mails to get this answer:

    ‘As you already stated corn is gluten free (not everybody knows that). Since we only mill corn flour in our plants, we do not need to be gluten free certified by law. There is no cross-contamination within our plants since it is the only grain that comes inside our facilities and touches our equipment. In addition lab tests are performed in all the flours on a weekly basis as a precautionary step only. It is not decided yet if we will keep the certifications logo or not; therefore they took it off the package and only placed a statement on the side of the bag.’

    I find this very fishy. They obvisously take a step down in safety for some reason. I think they are dropping the offical certification pretty soon. And we have to decide for ourselves if the stuff is still safe to eat.

    Any thoughts for me? What do you think: to eat or not to eat?

    • theglutenfreebar

      Thanks for the comment! I think you’re right to question this. Seems that companies fall into two camps when it comes to saying something is “naturally gluten-free”. Either they take advantage of the gluten-free trend and they label something gluten-free that is just so obviously gluten-free (like water…which has been done). Or they say that something is naturally gluten-free but they completely ignore the way that it is manufactured and then you read the label and it says that it is manufactured in a facility that also processes wheat, etc. I think if a company makes the gluten-free claim on a potentially questionable product then please be 100% sure that it is gluten-free and there aren’t any grey areas (like cross-contamination risks). I think this is why the actual certified GF logo is important and is something that people that need to eat GF should really look out for (and we consider that certification logo to be a big sign of trust for the GF snacks we produce)

  • Jo Tanner

    Can we add “superfood” to this list? When my blueberries start flying around with capes…maybe :/

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