Food Labels Aren’t Accurate (And That’s Dangerous)

For most people, packaged food is a welcome convenience. Canned, bottled, and prepared foods can be a meal in themselves, or simply help cut out 30 minutes of extra preparation when you don’t have the time to spare. You can trust that the label will more or less reflect what you’re actually getting when you open up the package. But if you have food allergies or sensitivities, you could be gambling with your life.

Why Don’t Labels Disclose Potential Contaminants?

For me it’s not quite so serious. Just the other day, I ate some canned food that should have been gluten-free. It wasn’t. I have no idea exactly why I had the reaction I did. It could have been trace amounts of wheat that got mixed in during packaging on shared equipment. It could have been undisclosed barley or rye used in processing the item. It could have been an ingredient contaminated with gluten used as a flavor enhancer.

There’s nothing quite like eating food that should be perfectly safe, only to realize too late that something is wrong. In my case, “too late” meant I got to spend the next 24 hours doubled over with horrific stomach pain, a rash of sores in my mouth, and a killer headache. But at least eating gluten won’t send me into anaphylactic shock.

It shouldn’t be this difficult to determine whether packaged food is safe to eat or not – food manufacturers know if their products have the potential to become contaminated, but they often choose not to disclose that possibility.

Many products will have a warning if there’s a danger of contamination from shared equipment, but this one didn’t. The FDA does not require such labeling – so unless a company has come out and stated specifically that they use a dedicated processing facility free of potential contamination, there’s no way to know if your food is really safe. And while wheat, the major source of gluten in most foods, is required to be labeled as a potential allergen, other gluten-containing grains like barley and rye can easily slip under the radar. If they’re used in processing and not the final product, they may not be listed as ingredients at all – and to some people, these trace amounts can be dangerous.

Why Don’t Labels Tell Us Where Ingredients Come From?

This is also true of other potential allergens not recognized a “major” allergens by the FDA. Corn allergies can be especially difficult to navigate, as most packaged foods and pharmaceuticals contain corn derivatives, but labels aren’t required to disclose when they’re present. And the name of the ingredient may be something more or less incomprehensible like “hydrolyzed vegetable protein” or “sorbic acid.”

Often, the only way to find out where these mystery ingredients were derived is by calling the manufacturer. Sometimes they won’t even know. Unless the source for these ingredients is milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, or soybeans, the manufacturer doesn’t have to tell you where it came from. And usually they won’t.

This essentially makes it legal to gamble with the lives of people with severe and less common food allergies. Most people will only become ill from an allergic reaction, which isn’t pleasant by any stretch of the imagination, but probably won’t kill them, either. But not everyone’s so fortunate, and people with serious food allergies should have the right to be able to sit down and eat without risking anaphylactic shock because of confusing and obscure ingredient labeling.

What Exactly Is “Natural Flavor”?

Unfortunately, labels like “natural flavor” or “spices” are often used to obscure the ingredients in food. Some of these can be seriously gross (and mess up a vegetarian or vegan diet), but some can be downright dangerous.

Right now, asking the manufacturer or avoiding any products listing “natural flavor” as an ingredient are†the only solutions for those with allergies or food sensitivities other than the “big 8.” If you have a very mild reaction or it takes a significant quantity to set you off, it might be safe to take a chance and see. But if you have a serious food allergy, you may have to avoid anything with this “ingredient” entirely just to be safe.

Improvements In Food Safety

It’s not enough for the FDA to merely suggest that possible sources of contamination be acknowledged. And it’s not enough for only 8 major allergens to be acknowledged in plain English on food labels.

Rather, food labels need to be required to openly disclose all possible sources of contamination, and the sources of all ingredients need to be easily identifiable. Ingredients like “hydrolyzed vegetable protein” can be made from corn, wheat, soy, or just about anything – the source should be present on the label. And “natural flavors” should have to be disclosed in easy-to-understand language. For some of us, it’s a simple matter of quality of life – but for others, the potential consequences are much more serious.

Until stricter food labeling laws are passed, I encourage people with food sensitivities to cook from scratch as much as possible. I know it’s not always possible, especially if you have a busy schedule. But when eating the wrong thing can land you in the hospital or force you to miss days of work, the extra effort is worth it. For once, you’ll be able to know exactly what’s in your food.

Related Stories:
What Gross Secret Ingredients are Hiding in Your Food?
A Safer Snack? Yup, Youíre HomeFree
Peanuts in Green Beans? Why Checking Labels for Allergens Isnít Enough

Photo credit: cogito ergo imago via Flickr

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ER C.2 years ago

SOYLENT GREEN.....One of Charlton Heston's futuristic end of world movies.....really rates good with what's going on today with our food.....anyone who hasn't seen would get a blast out of it. Don't eat it !!!!! SOYLENT GREEN .... IT's PEOPLE ! IT's PEOPLE ! & the FDA would probably approve it because people are meat too? Check out Jamie Oliver's you tube post on pink slime if you want to know how ground meats are made ( & processed meats too for that matter ) guess i'll just go get me some oatmeal & gag it down.

Fiona T.
Fi T.2 years ago

How can a guideline be incorrect?

Tim C.
Tim C.2 years ago


Fiona T.
Fi T.2 years ago

There should be better monitoring

Maria S.
Maria S.3 years ago

Although I don't live in the U.S. I'm very causious when I go to the market cause I don't trust the labels here in Greece. Maybe in many other countries also. So this article is good to have in mind when shopping. Thanks for sharing this very informative article.

Marsha Andrews
Marsha Andrews3 years ago

And how about the text size of directions and information being so small it's impossible to read.
I'm of course referring more to medications in this instance. It's seems the more critical the
information the smaller the font. All in all, a dangerous situation that should be illegal and definitely needs to change. But you know how it goes, someone has to die first.

a             y m.
g d c.3 years ago


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

my son was born with a beta carotene intolerance and we had to cut out everything red, orange and yellow and introduce each food one at a time. turns out he is allergic to carrots. he is now two and it seems every tomato based product also has carrot juice for coloring (even rices that aren't white have carrot juice in most cases!) we have to be careful what we give him.

Dale Overall

Interesting rationalization, if it doesn't kill you, what is the problem? So very expensive to change labels, better to double up in pain and agony for hours on end or perhaps end up in the hospital but we would not want to inconvenience business now would we?

With this callus mindset the consumer just has to learn to suck it up and take it like a man...or woman! Some in society feel that companies have to be careful as to not to step on the delicate toes of the Shareholders! Obviously their financial profits are far more important to society than people's pain, agony and in many cases, death.

There are often many things in foods that we don't know about and the fight not to label foods with GMOs is just one of the ongoing battles. The less we know the better for profit especially with refined/processed foods. I try and cook from scratch to avoid a lot of the toxins out there but so many products be it food or other are not labelled clearly as a matter of intent.

Valentina R.
Valentina R.3 years ago

Thank you for the article.