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Fyrius's avatar

Would it be too much to ask for references on food labels?

Asked by Fyrius (14530points) June 2nd, 2009

I came across a package of butter that says its contents are “scientifically proven” to lower cholesterol. And that’s all they say about it, “scientifically proven.” You’ll find food labels with claims like that all over the supermarket.
But I can’t help realising that the people who want to make me believe the effects of this butter have been conclusively proven incidentally also happen to be the people to whom my money goes when I buy this product. Why on earth would I take their word for it?

I think it would only be fair to put references on food labels with scientific claims. To give the more critical butter package readers some possibility to look up who investigated it when and with whose money, and what their results were.
Of course, the bulk of consumers wouldn’t bother with it, but if even the consumers who are interested enough in it have no way to look up and judge for themselves whether or not this butter package is full of shit, these butter salesmen can get away with claiming anything, and only professional consumer goods investigators could ever even tell if they’ve been lying.

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6 Answers

DarkScribe's avatar

What we have here is a law that makes it illegal to make a false claim about a product. Breaking the law carries a very heavy penalty – as several companies have found out. We also have a “Trade Practices Act” that allows for a full refund if any product is not fit for the purpose for which it was purchased. Between the two we have fairly accurate labeling.

galileogirl's avatar

As far as butter goes, your good sense should tell you if there is any ingredient you can’t pronounce beyond cream, milk solids and salt maybe it has some s**t you should google.

Fyrius's avatar

@DarkScribe
I’m rather certain we have a similar law here.

But I’d like to mention that that sort of policy is easily circumvented by slyly formulating the label in such a way that what it says is technically true, but obviously going to be “misinterpreted” as the claim the producers really want to make. For example, if you say a product has been “dermatologically tested”, that technically doesn’t say it actually passed the test.

More interestingly, it’s often a tad on the equivocal side whether the science actually proved whatever it is alleged to prove, and that leads to a grey area where a claim is neither clearly true nor clearly false. Often one study points to one conclusion, thus offering a great excuse to tell everyone that’s how it is, and subsequent studies debunk it and imply something completely different. I’ve been told the cholesterol-lowering butter issue is much like this.

DarkScribe's avatar

@Fyrius But I’d like to mention that that sort of policy is easily circumvented by slyly formulating the label in such a way that what it says is technically true, but obviously going to be “misinterpreted” as the claim the producers really want to make.

That’s where I really like our Trade Practice Law. It has a stipulation regarding labeling that says that a label means “What any reasonable person would believe” after reading it. In other words no amount of “fine print” will overcome the intent of the label. If a product is labeled as a diet product and you don’t lose weight, the company can get up to a $240,000.00 fine for each proven offence. So the label reads “might assist in weight loss” and they usually add “This product is not proven or guaranteed to work in all instances.”

There are still a few areas where fine tuning is needed, such as in “No added Sugar” labels that will list “Flavour” as an ingredient. Often the flavour is Corn Syrup, a sweetener as bad as sugar.

Fyrius's avatar

That’s good.

I wonder how they establish what counts as the interpretation of “any reasonable person”, though. Common sense usually works well on the whole, but has a tendency to fail when things get complicated.

DarkScribe's avatar

@Fyrius I wonder how they establish what counts as the interpretation of “any reasonable person”, though. Common sense usually works well on the whole, but has a tendency to fail when things get complicated.

So far the in those cases that have gained publicity, a “reasonable person” is a commissioner from the Attorney General’s Office or a Judge. The first cases a few years ago were to do with claims made for various vitamins and health food supplements. The results turned the whole industry onto its head. It still hasn’t recovered.

Now if you look at the label on a bottle of vitamins it says that the product “might” be efficacious in treating a vitamin deficiency, but makes no other claim. In the past they would claim that use of vitamins guaranteed better health. All of the bottles carry a warning that vitamin pills are not to be used to replace a healthy diet.

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