Hypoallergenic? Organic? 8 Product Terms That Don't Mean Much


If you try to be a conscientious consumer, you probably make a habit of scanning the ingredient lists on your favorite foods, personal care products, and cosmetics. But despite regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the manufacturers of food, drink, hygiene, and other products don’t always make it easy to understand what’s in your soda pop or sunblock—especially when the ingredient names and marketing terms they use, like the ones below, don’t actually have official definitions.


A number of cosmetic firms tout their “hypoallergenic” products as ideal for sensitive skin, but the harsh reality is that the term means nothing, according to the U.S. government. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act currently notes that there are “no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term.” That means there is zero oversight of the term’s use on products. In fact, the FDA notes, the word “means whatever a particular company wants it to mean." 

After “hypoallergenic” started catching on in the late ‘70s, the agency released an article outlining the term’s meaninglessness with the goal of keeping consumers from being fooled, noting: “Consumers concerned about allergic reactions from cosmetics should understand one basic fact: there is no such thing as a ‘nonallergenic’ cosmetic—that is, a cosmetic that can be guaranteed never to produce an allergic reaction.”


rachelulgado, Flickr

You're probably not getting duped by those organic bananas but be wary of cosmetic products (which the FDA defines as "personal care products that aren’t soap"). The FDA “regulates cosmetics under the authority of the [FD&C Act] and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA),” neither of which have established a definition of the term “organic,” putting that term outside of its realm of authority. However, if a product carries a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic label, then it’s subject to this agency’s terms for sourcing and processing ingredients.


The FD&C Act also doesn’t split hairs over the term “flavor" used on cosmetics labeling. The term can represent “any natural or synthetic substance or substances used solely to impart a taste to a cosmetic product.” So you may need to reconcile yourself with the fact that the “flavor” in ginger lip balm might be produced by just about anything—anything with a taste, that is.

The loophole also stands for “fragrances” in cosmetics, defined as “any natural or synthetic substance or substances used solely to impart an odor to a cosmetic product.” Therefore, even if the natural or synthetic “fragrance” substance in your lotion might have allergens or preservatives, as long is it—whatever it is—is only being used to create some sort of scent, it’s legally legitimate.


In both human and pet food, the term “spices” on an ingredient list has no set meaning, and functions as a catch-all for any of 35 common spices (ranging from mace to cinnamon). It can also refer to “any aromatic vegetable substance in the whole, broken, or ground form, except for those substances which have been traditionally regarded as foods, such as onions, garlic and celery, [and] whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutritional,” says the FDA. Manufacturers just have to disclose if they’re also using these substances for color.


You are probably already aware that the “natural flavor” in your bottled lemonade has a lot more to do with laboratories than with lemons, but the phrase—dubbed the fourth most commonly listed ingredient on food labels by the Environmental Working Group's Food Scores—is used more loosely than that. The substance in question is often neither “natural” nor necessarily depicting an actual, real-life flavor.

David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, told CNN earlier this year that while a “natural flavor” is derived from an “original ingredient [that’s] found in nature and then purified and extracted," the finished product is almost indistinguishable from synthetic alternatives: "Most often, as far as I could find, the actual chemicals themselves could be identical or extremely close in terms of natural versus artificial.”

And before an individual flavor (either natural or artificial) hits your beverage, another 50 to 100 ingredients are added‚ meaning as little as 10 percent of the final mix is actual flavoring. Andrews explained, "The mixture will often have some solvent and preservatives—and that makes up 80 to 90 percent of the volume [of the flavoring].”


theimpulsivebuy, Flickr

The FDA leaves interpretation of the term “natural” up to the food, drink, and personal care-product manufacturers who employ it. The agency explains, “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”


Shopping in a hurry but still trying to make healthy choices? It’s worth knowing that terms like “light/lite,” “low sugar,” “reduced fat,” and “calorie-free” follow federal guidelines but the definition of each term isn't set. The regulations cover a range of nutritional content stats, which means “low” isn't the same from product to product. 

For example, to qualify as a “light” or “lite” product, the FDA requires that an item that originally has a fat content of more than 50 percent must reduce the fat content by 50 percent compared to the standard version. Items that originally contain less than 50 percent fat must reduce the amount by one third in the 'lite' or 'light' version. 

Fortunately, a ‘light’ claim can't be made for a food that already meets the definition of ‘low fat’ and ‘low calorie.' That's why you won't see fat-free broccoli in the aisles but when it comes to goods like "light" ice cream or frozen macaroni, it’s all relative. 


Originating in the 1980s, the word “cosmeceutical”—a blend of cosmetic and pharmaceutical—is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “a cosmetic that has or is claimed to have medicinal properties, especially anti-aging ones.” The FDA takes a similar stance on the term, acknowledging that manufacturers are using it to suggest “medicinal properties,” and pretty much leaving it at that. The agency explains that while drugs and drug-containing products “are subject to a review and approval process by FDA, cosmetics are not approved by FDA prior to sale.”

In other words: even though medicinal drugs are tested by the FDA, cosmetics are not. So that face cream may actually contain anti-aging ingredients but it didn't have to go through rigorous FDA-approved clinical trials to prove effectiveness and safety before it landed on store shelves.

How Google Chrome’s New Built-In Ad Blocker Will Change Your Browsing Experience

If you can’t stand web ads that auto-play sound and pop up in front of what you’re trying to read, you have two options: Install an ad blocker on your browser or avoid the internet all together. Starting Thursday, February 15, Google Chrome is offering another tool to help you avoid the most annoying ads on the web, Tech Crunch reports. Here’s what Google Chrome users should expect from the new feature.

Chrome’s ad filtering has been in development for about a year, but the details of how it will work were only recently made public. “While most advertising on the web is respectful of user experience, over the years we've increasingly heard from our users that some advertising can be particularly intrusive,” Google wrote in a blog post. “As we announced last June, Chrome will tackle this issue by removing ads from sites that do not follow the Better Ads Standards.

That means the new feature won’t block all ads from publishers or even block most of them. Instead, it will specifically target ads that violate the Better Ad Standards that the Coalition for Better Ads recommends based on consumer data. On desktop, this includes auto-play videos with sound, sticky banners that follow you as you scroll, pop-ups, and prestitial ads that make you wait for a countdown to access the site. Mobile Chrome users will be spared these same types of ads as well as flashing animations, ads that take up more than 30 percent of the screen, and ads the fill the whole screen as you scroll past them.

These criteria still leave room for plenty of ads to show up online—the total amount of media blocked by the feature won’t even amount to 1 percent of all ads. So if web browsers are looking for an even more ad-free experience, they should use Chrome’s ad filter as a supplement to one of the many third-party ad blockers out there.

And if accessing content without navigating a digital obstacle course first doesn’t sound appealing to you, don’t worry: On sites where ads are blocked, Google Chrome will show a notification that lets you disable the feature.

[h/t Tech Crunch]

Why Subliminal Messaging Doesn't Work (Unless You Want It To)

Subliminal messages—hidden phrases in TV programs, movies, and ads—probably won't make you run out and join the Navy, appreciate a band's music, or start smoking. That's because these sneaky suggestions don't really change consumer behavior, even though many people believe otherwise, according to Sci Show Psych.

We say "don't really" because subliminal messages can sway the already motivated, research shows. For example, a 2002 study of 81 college students found that parched subjects drank more water after being subliminally primed with words like "dry" and "thirsty." (Participants who weren't already thirsty drank less.) A follow-up experiment involving 35 undergrads yielded similar results, with dehydrated students selecting sports drinks described as "thirst-quenching" over "electrolyte-restoring" after being primed for thirst. Experiments like these won't work on, say, chocolate-loving movie audiences who are subliminally instructed by advertisers to purchase popcorn instead.

Learn more about how subliminal messaging affects (or doesn't affect) our decision-making, and why you likely won't encounter ads with under-the-radar suggestions on the regular.


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