Consumers trust celebrities and social-media influencers to do their research for them.
Sixty-one percent of Americans are concerned about the healthiness of the products they buy and consume, but 34% say they rarely ever research the health claims made on the packaging, new research suggests, and nearly half (46%) say they’ve purchased something despite being unsure, according to a new survey from NSF International, an independent public-health and safety organization.
NSF polled 1,000 Americans about their safety concerns related to food, personal-care products and household cleaning items. They found that half of respondents said they were confused about product claims, and found them to be overwhelming or meaningless. In fact, people trust celebrity endorsements (39% of men and 26% of women) and claims on social media (44% of men versus 31% of women), the survey added.
When consumers read labels, they may not realize they’re being lied to because of trick words like ‘organic’ and ‘farm fresh.’
When consumers read labels, they may not realize they’re being lied to because of trick words like “organic” and “farm fresh.” Separate research shows that health claims like these slapped on the front of packaging labels makes people believe a product is better for them, even if it’s not. They can also add to the price: “Humanely-raised” meat can cost three times more than others meats, for instance.
“Federal regulators are supposed to protect consumers from false and misleading claims on foods, however, in practice, they let food manufacturers get away with empty and confusing messages all of the time,” Thomas Gremillion, director of Food Policy at the Consumer Federation of America, told MarketWatch.
Here are some tips on how to avoid getting ripped off on your next trip to the grocery store:
Skip the fancy organic food claims and examine the ingredients
“Many products labeled ‘all natural’ are highly processed and chock full of ingredients most of us would consider anything but natural, like saltwater brine injected into chicken breasts,” Gremillion says. “Farm fresh” is a term manufactures use to make products sound more appealing and locally sourced from a farm, but it really doesn’t mean anything, he says.
Watch for sugars labeled as corn syrup or dextrose, refined grains and hydrogenated oils, adds Tanya Zuckerbrot, a registered dietitian and creator of the F-Factor high fiber diet plans. “They lead us to believe products are healthier or good for us, but that is not always the case,” she says. Products that say “light” could be watered down or processed to reduce fat.
“Natural” could mean food that has undergone minimal processing or that it’s low in preservatives; however, there’s no real FDA definition, so makers can be liberal with the term. And “low fat” could still mean the product is loaded with added sugar and calories despite the rule set by the FDA that the product must contain 3 grams or less of total fat per serving size.
If a label claims a food is organic, it means that no more than 5% of that food is produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents.
If a label claims a food is organic, it means that no more than 5% of that food is produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents and has been certified by a USDA accredited agency. Something that says “made with organic ingredients” means a product comprises at least 70% of organic foods, Zuckerbrot notes.
“Organic is not always better,” Zuckerbrot says. Pasture-raised, wild, grass-fed often trumps organic meat. Not only are “organic” products sometimes more expensive, but it does not imply anything about the actual health of the food, she adds. “An organic cookie is still a cookie,” she says. It sounds healthy, but it could still contain as much salt, sodium and sugar as any other cookie that has more processed ingredients and/or artificial sweeteners and flavors.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the animal rights organization, has said that although the USDA requires that “free range” chickens have unlimited access to food and water and the freedom to roam around during their egg-laying cycle, some chickens don’t actually get to roam outdoors when farmers try to use loopholes in the law by making outdoor areas hard for them to access, or when the birds are overfed and unable to walk easily.
Other labels are more reliable. “Eat REAL” will let you know how animals were treated during food preparation. A nonprofit, the U.S. Healthful Food Council, started working on the label seven years ago. There are over 500 restaurants and food-service providers who are “REAL” certified. Those include chains such as Bareburger, Fresh & Co. and Sweetgreen, as well as one-location restaurants. REAL stands for “responsible,” “epicurean,” “agricultural” and “leadership.”
Many beauty products are made of sulfur-containing mineral salts
A maker can slap the word “natural” on a beauty product, but that doesn’t mean every ingredient is natural. Once again, it’s advisable to look at the ingredients instead. “If a product is labeled as ‘natural’ it will generally mean that at least some natural ingredients have been used in the formula, but a product can be labeled as natural and contain up to 30% synthetic ingredients,” board-certified dermatologist Debra Jailman told Dermstore.com, a skincare publication.
She recommends products that say “100% natural,” and ones that are sulfate-free. Sulfates (sodium laureth sulfate, or sodium lauryl sulfate for example), are often used as a foaming agent in shampoos made of sulfur-containing mineral salts that can irritate skin and strip hair and the scalp of natural oils. Parabens –– found in makeup, moisturizers, hair-care products and saving creams –– should also be avoided. They’ve been linked to breast cancer and other health risks, despite being used to prevent bacteria growth.
A maker can slap the word “natural” on a beauty product, but it can still contain up to 30% synthetic ingredients.
The law does not require cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, to have approval by the Food and Drug Administration before they go on the market. Consumer watchdogs have argued that more stringent regulation of the personal-care products industry is imperative. The FDA “does not have the resources or authority under the law for pre-market approval of cosmetic product labeling,” it says.
It is the manufacturer’s and/or distributor’s responsibility to ensure that products are labeled properly, the FDA adds. “Failure to comply with labeling requirements may result in a misbranded product,” it says. A bill from California State Assembly members Al Muratsuchi (D.-Torrance) and Buffy Wicks (D.-Oakland) was proposed in March to ban the use of 20 highly toxic chemicals such as mercury, lead and formaldehyde among others that have been allegedly linked to cancer or reproductive harm in makeup sold in California.
The term non-toxic may sound reassuring, but there’s no standard definition in the cleaning products industry so it can be an empty promise to consumers, and often a misleading marketing ploy, according to the Environmental Working Group.
What’s more, hazardous chemicals can often be described as “active ingredients” in cleaning products like hand washing and dish soaps along with detergents, which are typically just pesticides added to kill bacteria, but aren’t effective, according to the EWG. Active ingredients mean the product contains antimicrobial pesticides used in some disinfectants and sanitizers.
Instead, the agency suggests opting for items labeled “safer choice,” which include products overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that are better for consumer’s health and the environment.
There has been some criticism, however, of Safer Choice products. Women’s Voices for the Earth, an environmental organization and advocacy group, claims that the Safer Chemical Ingredient list contains fragrance ingredients, which, they argue, pose health hazards.
“The Safer Choice label is somewhat misleading, because if the product contains fragrance, it contains chemicals of concern. Consumers who want to buy a product with the Safer Choice label because they are concerned about harmful chemicals should look for the fragrance-free label,” Jamie McConnell, director of programs and policy at Women’s Voice for the Earth wrote.
(Maria LaMagna contributed to this story.)
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