Not too long ago in this space I talked about "Santa Cruz Fat Free Guacamole," which I found in the grocery store, and which I'm sure is very groovy stuff except for the fact that it is neither "fat free" nor "guacamole." A short while after I wrote that column I was enjoying my favorite eggplant goo, Imam Bayeldi, on some crackers. "This is great stuff," I thought. "Too bad it's so greasy." I looked at the label to see just how greasy it was and found that, despite the fact that olive oil was one of the first listed ingredients, the goo had "0" calories from fat. Either the label was wrong or my local Middle Eastern market had found a way around the laws of thermodynamics.
These experiences got me to wondering what other food labels may contain grossly misleading information. I decided to investigate, and here are some of the things I found…
- Food labels love to make health claims, whether they are true or not. For example, Post Golden Crisp Cereal advertises itself as "wholesome," despite the fact that sugar is its first listed ingredient. Actually, of its 7 listed ingredients, 3 are sugars, one is hydrogenated oil, one is artificial color and one is salt. I guess that leaves "wheat" as its "wholesome" ingredient. Wholesome indeed.
- Hundreds of products lie about their fat content. Annie's Natural "Low Fat Gingerly Vinaigrette" salad dressing, for instance, gets 50% of its calories from fat. This doesn't sound like "low fat" to me, but it's a lot better than the bottle of Hidden Valley Original Ranch "Fat Free" dressing with bacon I found that gets 130 of its 140 calories from fat. Maybe they got the labels mixed up (??!!), or maybe in Hidden Valley what they hide is the truth.
- Speaking of hiding the truth, check out Dinty Moore "97% fat free" Chicken and Dumplings, Valley Fresh "96% fat free" chunk chicken, and Swanson "99% fat free" chicken and beef broth. Despite these claims, each of these products gets 25% of its calories from fat. And "90% lean, 10% fat" ground beef actually gets 50% of its calories from fat. Well, at least that's better than the "80% lean" stuff, which is in reality over 2/3 fat.
- Of course, many meat products don't have nutrition labels at all. Why? They would look terrible, so the meat lobby got them exempted. (Labeling of meat products is controlled by the Department of Agriculture ("DOA"), and isn't subject to the FDA labeling requirements.) "It's not a bribe, Mr. Congressperson—just think of it as a tip."
- Dairy content is another area that seems to spawn food label lies. On the Coffee Mate coffee creamer label it says, "This is a non-dairy product." Under "ingredients" on the very same label it lists "sodium caseinate (a milk derivative)." How do you suppose they define "dairy?" Of course the other "non-dairy creamers" lie on their labels too.
- If you want food labels that are both misleading and dumb, check out Hormel Pig's Feet and Cedar Springs leg of lamb, both of which advertise themselves as "semi-boneless." What does that mean, anyway? Wouldn't it be more honest just to admit that they contain hunks of fibula and/or a few toe bones carefully hidden inside?
- My prize for dumbest misleading label, though, goes to Herb Ox Vegetable Bouillon Cubes. Among its ingredients is "fat flavor" (mmmm!), which, in turn, contains "partially hydrogenated corn oil" and "flavor." Gee, that's informative.
- Of course, misleading food claims are not confined to product labels. Indeed, restaurant menus can be some of the worst offenders. How many gazillion times do non-vegetarian dishes show up in the "vegetarian" section of the menu? How many gazillion times do they forget to mention the cheese or chicken broth or worse in menu descriptions?
- Sometimes restaurant lies even carry over to their national advertising. For example, the restaurant chain Chili's incessantly advertises "baby back ribs." Despite this depraved-yet-enticing claim, clearly intended to raise images of cannibalism, I have it on good authority that there are no actual babies in these ribs at all. Instead, they are made with dead animal parts, just like all their other menu items. (Jonathan Swift and Jeffrey Dahmer, eat your hearts out.)
- Of course the mother of all food label lies is found on your friendly neighborhood carton of cow's milk. Milk labeled as "2%" really gets 34% of its calories from fat. The reason the dairy people lie and call it "2% fat" is that they sell more milk if people mistakenly believe it is a low-fat product rather than a high-fat product. Simple? Yes. Blatant frauds on the consumer? Absolutely!
What I want to know is, where is our government in all of this? The folks in Washington have been strangely silent. Have the FDA, DOA and Congress all sold out to the meat and dairy and Coffee Mate lobbies, or is it that they just don't care very much? And if they don't care, why not? Why pass labeling laws in the first place if you are going to ignore noncompliance?
Maybe it's time we took matters into our own hands. Hindus are already suing McDonald's over their fraudulent claims about "beef" in their fries. Maybe it's time we stand up to the other lies too. If only Jonathan and Jeffrey were here to sue the Chili's folks over the "baby back ribs" scandal, I'd support them in a minute. It just seems like the right thing to do.