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

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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.”


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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.


Ccyyrree, Wikimedia Commons

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].”


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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.