An ugly controversy began to play out in the pages of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in November between two local health-food manufacturers. Depending on your point of view, the mislabeling of the protein content on a line of protein-rich, gluten-free, vegetarian baked goods called Manbake Beefcakes was either deceptive marketing or an innocent and temporary situation that was exploited by a competitor. But nobody disputes that, for several weeks, purchasers were getting less than half the protein listed on the Beefcakes’ nutritional label. Coming just months after it was revealed that Red Velvet Cafe’s vegan cookies had nearly six times the advertised calories, the controversy raised a very simple question: Can health-conscious shoppers trust the labels on the food they buy? The answer is pretty shocking.
According to FDA spokeswoman Juli Ann Putnam, “Manufacturers of food products are responsible for developing the data necessary to create an accurate listing of nutritional information on food-product labels.” In most instances, those manufacturers rely on independent labs to either chemically analyze their actual products, or to mathematically calculate the nutrients by comparing a product’s recipe to a computer database of the known nutritional content of each ingredient. While the more expensive chemical analysis is considered more accurate, both are acceptable to the FDA.
What might surprise you, however, is that the government doesn’t require proof that any analysis was performed, or that the information on a label coincides with the results of such an analysis.
Manufacturers are basically free to put whatever they want on their labels. While the FDA “periodically collects surveillance samples” of certain products, Putnam says, and “may analyze foods that have been brought to [its] attention through complaints or routine inspections that appear to have inaccuracies in the labeling,” most foods are never officially tested.
“You basically have to trust the packaging,” says Gregg Leighton, CEO of Manbake’s competitor, ProBread, who brought the mislabeling of the Manbake Beefcakes to the Review-Journal’s attention.
“I knew what they were selling couldn’t have been truthful,” he says of Manbake. So he sent the product to the lab he uses to analyze his products.
Manbake owner Seth Lagana admits that, for a period of time, his product’s packaging contained inaccurate information. But he insists he never intended to deceive the public, and seems surprised by the outcry.
He says when he launched the products, he sent his recipes to a lab and used its report to create his labels. Over time, however, his recipes changed: New flavors were added, the cakes were made smaller and he got a new protein supplier. He submitted the new recipes to his lab, aware that the nutritional facts had changed, but continued to offer the new recipes with the old labels while he awaited the results. He claims, however, to have informed store owners of the change, and posted information about it online. Even after the controversy, he maintains his actions were ethical.
“I went to all the store owners, and I said, ‘Hey, look, the nutritional facts are changing,’” Lagana explains. “And none of them seemed to care about it. There was no urgency to hold the products or to stop [selling them] if I make public statements and tell everybody, ‘Hey, the nutritional facts are changing.’”
At least one of his customers disputes that claim. “We’re not trying to say he didn’t have the best intent,” says Lori Smith, president of Las Vegas Nutrition Center. “But I wasn’t aware that the nutrition facts were incorrect.”
Fred Evaristo, president of the Freddie’s Nutrition health food stores, supports Lagana’s claim. “He did let me know that,” he says. “And we did let customers know that. And to tell you the truth, nobody seemed to care.”
Despite Evaristo’s claim, it’s not hard to imagine some employees occasionally failing to inform a customer who would care that the labels were incorrect.
So while the FDA insists that in general, consumers can rely on the accuracy of nutrition information listed on food products, what can you do to be certain you’re getting what’s advertised? Short of sending your favorite product to a lab yourself to be tested, not much. But Evaristo offers an age-old adage that would seem to apply. “If it looks too good to be true, there’s a good possibility it is,” he advises.
And as someone who’s tasted Red Velvet Cafe’s delicious cookies, and immediately expressed my doubt on the calorie claim, I have to agree.