More people care about the words on food packaging than ever. As a result, companies have created eye-catching marketing claims to stand out from products without those claims (and to justify the higher price tags). But have you ever wondered what these claims actually mean?
The answer is anything but simple. “The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have many approved marketing claims; they have strict regulations and rules on nutrient content claims, which characterize the level of a nutrient in a food,” says food scientist and chemical engineer Erin, also known as the Food Science Babe on social media. “Saying a product cures a disease or illness is illegal because it’s not a drug, but then you have marketing claims that are technically factual [and allowed] but also misleading.”
Some marketing claims are intended to ignite fear in consumers, despite the various regulations in place to ensure food safety. “Deceptive marketing claims can feed into movements like ‘clean eating’ that are not science-based arguments,” Erin adds. “At the end of the day, companies are just trying to get you to buy their product.”
With all that said, what is the actual meaning of these popular marketing claims? Let’s see what a food scientist has to say.
What three food marketing claims actually mean, according to a food scientist
1. “No added hormones”
If you’re looking to limit your intake of hormones through animal products, then you may look for products without added hormones. Erin says this marketing claim is slightly deceptive. “You’ll find meat products are marketed as ‘no added hormones’, which is very true and factual, but at the same time, adding hormones in [certain] animal products has not been allowed since the 1950s,” she adds. It’s true: The USDA has prohibited the use of hormones in organic and conventional poultry for decades, while a handful of natural and synthetic hormones have been approved to use in beef, cattle, and sheep. It’s also important to note that the list of approved natural and synthetic hormones have been proven to be safe for people to eat and to not harm the treated animal or negatively impact the environment.
Even so, you’ll find various poultry products being marketed to appeal to consumers looking to limit their intake of hormones. There’s no harm in marketing animal products as such, but Erin says the claim can confuse consumers by implying that other poultry has added hormones. It doesn’t, which is why companies using the label “no added hormones” must include an asterisk or disclaimer that explicitly states “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” However, the phrase can be used on the label of beef and pork products, so long as the producer submits sufficient documentation to the USDA stating that no hormones were used in raising the animals.
2. No antibiotics
More consumers have been demanding animal products free from antibiotics due to growing concerns around consuming antibiotic residue, the environment, animal welfare, and overall food safety. But the chance of consuming antibiotics through animals is slim. “Even if an animal is given antibiotics throughout its lifetime, there are very strict regulations on withholding periods so the medicine can get out of their system,” Erin says. “Animal products are [also] tested to make sure there’s no antibiotic residues before it’s sold — if there are, then it has to be thrown out.”
So is including the label “no antibiotics” misleading? According to Erin, it depends. On one hand, this label can distinguish animal products that were never administered antibiotics. On the other, Erin says, “this claim can often lead to an assumption that if a package doesn’t say that, then the product has antibiotics in it.” (Again, food in the market does not have antibiotic residue.) However, if you’re looking to buy meat products that were never provided with antibiotics, then you can look for products with the “no antibiotics added” label.
3. No artificial ingredients
Artificial ingredients are man-made ingredients used to enhance the look and taste of certain food items. Concerns over the effect of artificial ingredients have grown over the years, prompting many companies to feature the “no artificial ingredients” label on their packaging to stand out from other options. However, Erin notes the term “artificial ingredient” isn’t defined (or regulated) by the FDA, unless describing flavoring in products. Aside from that, she says this claim doesn’t really tell you anything about the product.
“There are a lot of things that are natural that are very harmful, so just saying something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s safer or more nutritious,” she adds. She also pointed out how including this marketing claim often perpetuates the idea that something being artificial is bad, when food additives are constantly regulated by various federal authorities to ensure that foods are safe to eat and are accurately labeled. For that reason, she advises not to worry too much about man-made or natural additives in food products, unless you’re allergic or can’t tolerate them well.
How to think about marketing claims
Erin says that relying on marketing claims is unnecessary. “Don’t pay too much attention to labels on the front other than what it is, what the flavor is, what the actual product is, if you’re interested in the nutritional content of it,” she advises. “Look at the nutrition panel, look at the ingredients—but as far as the front of the package is concerned, it is just all marketing. Buy what you like and what you have access to.”
If you’re concerned about the food supply chain in the United States, Erin affirms that there are various rules and regulations in place to ensure our food supply is safe. “People get caught up in additives and ingredients and being told it’s toxic, but in reality, the food safety issues in our food supply have to do with things like Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli.,” she adds. “It’s understandable to feel concerned about what you consume, but our food supply is very safe.” Moral of the story: Just buy what makes you happy, what you can afford, and what ultimately feeds your soul.