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Why You Need to Read the Fine Print on Food Labels

Why is there even FINE PRINT on food labels?  It's not a legal document, is it?

If you have not already reached this conclusion on your own, I wanted to appeal to everyone reading this to read food labels carefully and with a critical eye.  Why?

In the United Stated, through a complex legal framework that allows a certain degree of smoke and mirrors in advertising, manufacturers can make claims that border on blatant untruths.  If there is ever an asterisk indicating teeny-tiny fine print at the footer of a food ad, please take that as a huge red flag that there is: 

a) an overstatement of its nutritional value or health benefits, and/or

b) a gross oversimplification of the “science” behind such claims. 

Many so-called “health benefits” are often based on speculation (read “self-serving marketing language”) rather than actual scientific study.

Case in point: 

We just found a full-page ad for a corn oil product in the Costco Connections magazine that claims boldly to have “*4X more plant sterols than olive oil”.

Sounds amazing, right?  But hold on a second—what’s a plant sterol?  Is that even something that should make me want to buy this product? Plant sterols (phytosterols) have indeed been shown to help modulate healthy cholesterol for people with abnormally high levels. For everyone else, the conclusion has also been reached that: 

"It is not essential to take plant stanols or sterols to help manage your cholesterol... It is unlikely that people with ‘normal’ levels of cholesterol will benefit from including plant stanols and sterols fortified foods" (British Dietetic Association Food Fact Sheet, 2015)

So is this corn oil product a proven winner by its association with these miracle molecules?

If you already started asking these kinds of critical questions, maybe you also noticed the sneaky little asterisk stuck on the front of that claim.  What additional information does it have to offer?  As it turns out, a lot—just not what you might expect from such a scientific-sounding claim!

Let’s take a look at what it actually says by following the asterisk with the teeny-tiny print at the ad’s actual footer (see image above).  The full, densely packed text is given below so as to avoid omitting anything contextual, with paragraph spacing and bold font added to highlight the incredible statements supporting this claim. 

“Based on analysis of corn oil and 2016 USDA comparison of other cooking oil:  Corn oil has plant sterols of 135.6 mg/serving vs. 30 mg/serving for olive oil, 40.8 mg/serving for vegetable oil, and 93.9 mg/serving for canola oil.
Corn oil is a cholesterol-free food that contains 14g of total fat per serving.  See nutrition information on package for fat and saturated fat content.
Very limited and preliminary scientific evidence suggests that eating about 1 tbsp (16g) of corn oil daily may reduce the risk of heart disease due to the unsaturated fat content in corn oil.
The Food and Drug Administration concludes there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim.
To achieve this possible benefit, corn oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.
One serving of this product contains 14g of corn oil.
For more information, visit xxxxxxx.com. ©2017 ACH Food Companies, Inc.”

At first glance, your eyes might drift over the first sentence and skip to the end, and you would miss the juicy bits in the middle.

But that's entirely the point of stacking fake scientific information (or "alternative facts") this way.

First of all, the myth that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease has been completely debunked scientifically for decades, even though it has taken the FDA until recent years to admit it.

Second, did I forget to mention that the bold print both makes a very flimsy claim about this product’s health benefits, but then proceeds in the very next sentence to acknowledge that even the FDAconcludes there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim”?

Wow.  Would you stake your health on "very limited and preliminary scientific evidence"?

So what is actually good about this product in the end, packaged for mass consumption as it is in a bottle that could just as easily hold motor oil?  We can’t tell from the bottle or the label information, so I guess we're expected to find out by ingesting it!

Or we can run away as fast and far as possible from dishonest and questionable products like this!

THE TAKEAWAY

Food producers are not required to tell the truth in the large print, as long as they say so in the small print.  This is why it is up to you, the consumer, to be smarter than they take you for!  This is just one example in a million, so please be vigilant for the sake of your health!

And remember caveat emptor:  Buyer Beware.

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