How To Spot Mislabeled Food Items At The Grocery Store

When checking for food at the grocery store, we may be wondering if the items we select are in line with what is written on the labels. That is the trouble faced by more than half of Americans who find food labels misleading or confusing. Even if we religiously check the labels for fat, sugar, sodium or claims of being organic or gluten-free, what we see may not always be what we get. 

Mislabeling, or misbranding, is all too common. Sometimes, false labels are due to outright, intentional food fraud. Other times, it may be due to a manufacturer error. Still, labels can be sometimes confusing, because the FDA's definition of a serving size or sugar may not match how we understand either of them. 

With the "nutrition facts" part of food labels undergoing changes for the first time since 1994, confusion is set to increase. Among the changes are increased serving sizes to reflect the fact that we eat larger portions that we once thought, reduced daily recommended sodium intake -- from 2,400 to 2,300 milligrams -- and indicated vitamin D and potassium levels.

The good news is that, according to food scientist Rosalee Hellberg from California's Chapman University, consumers like you can protect themselves. "They can teach themselves to read labels properly, and learn how to protect themselves from food fraud. There are simple pointers that anyone can learn," she told HuffPost. To avoid constant revisits to the grocery store, here are expert-recommended tips to help you spot mislabeled food items:

Be Familiar With Your Favorite Foods 

Honey and olive oil are both prone to adulteration and mislabeling. While the former has been diluted with corn syrup or sugar, the latter can be mixed with other cheaper cooking oils and, in some cases, added with food coloring to give the oil a green hue of oils rich in plant-based phytonutrients.

Fruit juices are sometimes prone to mislabeling, either watered down or diluted with apple or grape juice. Orange juice, in particular, might actually contain lemon or grapefruit juice together with sugars such as high-fructose corn syrup.

To protect yourself from counterfeit foods, Hellberg advised "becoming familiar with your favorite foods and beverages," knowing "the typical prices for those products, and what the label looks like." If the taste changes, or the label looks a bit different, she said that should alert you to a possible problem.

Check Their Country Of Origin 

There are cheap substitutes that have sometimes been labeled as prized but extremely expensive regional products such as various expensive wines and the Modena balsamic vinegar. In addition, some companies may use coy labeling without making outright claims, such as in the case of potato chips from Washington that were labeled "Hawaiian," which triggered a lawsuit by some customers.

To prevent this from happening to you, Hellberg advised purchasing products from well-known and reputable companies that prioritize safety and quality. "Many companies have well-thought-out plans to verify and inspect ingredients from suppliers to be sure they are genuine," she explained.

Are "Gluten-Free" Foods Really Free Of Gluten?

In 2017, Tricia Thompson, dietitian and founder of consumer advocacy site Gluten Free Watchdog, led a petition demanding increased surveillance, investigation and enforcement of gluten-free misbranding violations. Since then, she told HuffPost, consumers have reported dozens of "gluten-free" products that actually contain gluten. 

Every product from lentils to cookie dough violated the standards. And there is good news and bad news. The good news, Thompson said, is that 6 of 8 products she reported to the FDA this year have been recalled. The bad news, she added, is that "no action has been taken by the FDA against malt or hydrolyzed wheat protein in soy sauce." Malt can come from barley, a gluten-loaded grain. In response, an FDA spokesperson referred HuffPost to the official statement from the administration and noted that the first response to a violation is to work with companies toward a voluntary recall.

To protect yourself, familiarize yourself with the actual rules and regulations. Know that malt can often be barley malt and that soy sauce can often be derived from wheat. Read labels first instead of accepting claims.

Ask About Fish And Other Seafood

It is unfortunately common for fish and other seafood to be mislabeled, with cheap or farmed brands passed off as more succulent or wild-caught varieties. 

Asian pangasius, for example, may be labeled a sole, grouper or flounder and farmed salmon may be sold as "wild-caught." This can be hard to ascertain since over 90 percent of seafood eaten in America is imported. 

When at the fish store, ask questions, including where, when and how the fish was caught. Hellberg advised avoiding purchase if "the price seems too good to be true." Whenever possible, she said, purchase a whole fish or local seafood, and not those that have traveled through several countries.

Nutrition Label The nutrition labels you're used to might be changing soon. Dan Domme CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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