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Cheese "Product," Peanut "Spread" & Other Tricky Labels To Watch Out For

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They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but carefully judging a food by its label might be a good idea. New regulations on olive oil have reminded us just how important it is to double-check the packaging on the food we purchase.

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Many products sold as “olive oil”are, in actuality, diluted and highly processed vegetable oil blends. The low-quality bottles can be a mishmash of different types of olives, countries of origin, and even filler oils that are packaged at unregulated foreign plants and sold to wholesalers. So if the price on that gallon-sized jug looks too good to be true… it probably is.

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A safer bet is to look for the words “From Italy,” where counterfeiters face $10,000 fines for fraudulent labeling under the new export laws. Even better is a D.O.P. certification (which stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta), which means that the olives were not only grown in Italy, but processed and packaged there, too. Words like “cold-pressed” and “extra-virgin” will tell you that the oils were extracted without heat or chemicals, preserving the flavor and nutrients.

Things are just as complicated on this side of the pond, where highly processed foods often masquerade as their more natural counterparts. Any “imitation” food that resembles a traditional food and could be considered a substitute must be labeled as such if it contains less protein or less of any essential vitamin or mineral, and the FDA requires the word to be in the same font size as the product title. Still, it's something to be aware of.

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Here are a few common “imposter foods” to look out for:

  • “Peanut spread” versus peanut butter: Anything with less than 60% peanuts (usually reduced-fat versions loaded with corn syrup and hydrogenated oil) must, legally, be called “spreads."

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  • “Cheese foods” versus “cheese product” versus cheese: Under FDA guidelines, “cheese” must contain 100% cheese with only the ingredients milk, whey, salt, and enzymes. “Cheese foods” contain at least 51% cheese, and “cheese product” contains less than 51% cheese. These may have up to 20 ingredients, the first of which is often, bafflingly, water (for the melt factor).

  • “Whole wheat bread” versus 100-percent whole wheat bread: Products labeled “whole wheat” must contain whole wheat flour as an ingredient, but the actual percentage isn’t regulated by the FDA. Ingredients are always listed in order of quantity, so if whole wheat flour isn’t first (or the bag doesn’t list the percentage), the actual quantity may be negligible.

  • “Butter flavored” versus butter: Any food that lists butter in the name (like a cookie) must use butter for the entire shortening component. Otherwise, the FDA-approved term is “butter flavored” or “buttery.” These products can still contain butter, but only enough to impart flavor—or, in the case of margarine “butter spread,” may contain none at all.

What marketing words make you particularly wary? Share with us in the comments!