So what do the terms organic and natural really mean when employed to market products sold by large food corporations? What do fragrance-free and hypoallergenic really mean in the context of cosmetics and personal care products? How can we know what to trust when we read labels?
We like to believe that labels appearing on foods, cosmetics and personal care products provide a full and accurate accounting of the ingredients we take into our bodies through the mouth and skin. Educating ourselves properly about the options we have to choose from in life is pivotal to our health and well-being. Let’s examine the label disclosure laws maintained by the three main federal regulatory agencies: the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. Under an umbrella of loopholes in product regulations known as trade secrecy laws, manufacturers are allowed to hide the identity of some product ingredients from consumers. The rationale for secrecy has always been that disclosure of patented chemical formulations would harm competitive position by giving other manufacturers shortcuts to replicate their products.
While this argument for hiding chemical ingredients may have had some legitimacy a few decades ago, the marketplace and competitive landscape for manufacturers and producers has changed dramatically since then. Major food and cosmetic companies are highly technologically sophisticated and any product made by a competitor can be reverse-engineered to decipher the identity of chemical ingredients. As a result, trade secrecy laws in the realms of food, cosmetics and personal care products only serve to keep consumers in the dark about what they would otherwise find objectionable and a potential health risk.
When it comes to the labels of most mainstream products, secrecy may be the only truth we can absolutely rely on. This failure of labels to completely and accurately disclose the potentially toxic chemical ingredients amounts to a form of health care fraud. To illustrate the dimensions of the challenge this secrecy poses for conscientious consumers, an organization called The National Environmental Trust in Washington, D.C. did a survey in 2004 of 40 common consumer products. They found more than half of these products contained toxic chemicals that were legally not revealed on the labels under trade secrecy exemptions.Despite the seemingly insurmountable problems that trade secrecy creates for the average consumer wanting full disclosure, there are ways to navigate through the chemical minefield if you know how to break the ‘code’ of label language. As a general rule, a product containing chemicals should list every single ingredient by its proper chemical name, otherwise consider it a red flag. Avoid products withholding information. Bear in mind that the more chemicals a product contains, the more potential risk to health it poses because of the possible synergistic reactions that can happen between these various chemicals.
Identities of specific chemicals are often cloaked under vague terms. Below are some currently in vogue:
Natural Flavors or Natural Colorings
The word natural is very vague. Synthetic chemical food additives concocted in laboratories that attempt to mimic natural flavorings or colorings from nature can be labeled as natural flavors or natural colorings. If ingredients are truly natural, then a manufacturer would not be reluctant to identify every single one of them.
Another generic label term without any specific meaning. The fragrance portion of any product can contain more than 100 different synthetic chemicals, according to the trade publication Flavour and Fragrance Journal. Even a product labeled unscented or fragrance-free may contain synthetic chemicals designed to mask the noxious smells of other synthetic chemicals.
Inert or Inactive
Often hides the identity of several thousand different toxic synthetic chemicals. Chemicals are added to products for a specific reason. An inert or inactive chemical in a product means that it doesn’t play a direct role in the product’s effectiveness, but rather an indirect role in facilitating the effectiveness of other active chemicals in the product. The inert or inactive chemicals are still present and can affect you.
Ultra-fine or Micro-fine
Relatively new product label terms, suggesting the product contains ingredients whose molecules have been reduced to the size of nano-particles. This molecular reduction in size is usually designed to facilitate absorption of the chemicals into the body. However, the safety of nano-particles remains an open question.
Organic or All-natural Still another red flag for you should be any time a product declares itself to be without any accompanying identification of ingredients or any certification. A truly organic product comes with a USDA certified organic seal on the label. Since we can’t always depend on government or manufacturers to protect us from questionable product ingredients, it is up to each of us to exercise due diligence in making choices about what we purchase. Our health that of the planet ultimately depends on our good judgment.
Vol 29 Issue 3 Page 26