John Larrysson Column: Food Descriptions

One area where people have trouble with English is food descriptions. Native speakers generally know to ignore certain words or phrases on food packages. They are false advertising, but almost everyone knows they are lies, so it is ignored.

The word fresh is an overused and misleading word. Fresh milk is illegal in most developed countries; it must be pasteurized (heated to kill bacteria). This doesn't prevent advertisers from putting the word fresh on their milk. Vegetables are not garden fresh, unless you grew it in your own garden. Some food products are aged or fermented and can never be fresh. These include cheese, yoghurt, beer, wine... (also ham and bacon)

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The word pure is usually a lie. Almost all food are a mixture of things. Only water, salt or sugar might be pure, but I would still check the ingredients listed on the package. Some companies add sugar to their salt.

The words homemade and farmhouse would not be allowed if they were true. Food sold to the public requires special health department licences. ( The government would probably not appreciate people living, sleeping and showering in the food preparation area.

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Traditional, natural, original, authentic, old fashioned, all mean the way food was prepared back in the old days, before modern cleanliness. Food contaminated with cholera or other bacteria is old fashioned. On food packages today these words hopefully have no meaning.

On food packages the word style seems to have a new meaning 'not'. Singaporean style fried noodles, means not from Singapore. If they were, the label would say, Made in Singapore. Canadian style pizza is not made in Canada and was probably never even sold in Canada.

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The label new and improved does not say what type of change. Often the change is a smaller size at the same price or less expensive ingredients.

The claim no preservatives depends on the reader not knowing that salt, sugar and alcohol are all preservatives. And let's not get started on "no chemicals used"!

A bottle might say cranberry juice, but check the list of ingredients. Often there might be very little juice mixed with other things.

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The claim cholesterol free just means no animal products (meat, milk, eggs...) Writing cholesterol free on a bottle of corn oil does not make it healthier than another brand of corn oil. It makes as much sense as selling meat-free carrots. The no added cholesterol label is ridiculous; nobody adds it because cholesterol is naturally present in animal products. The same is true of the no added trans-fats label. No one adds trans-fats, but some are created during cooking. The claim gluten free is only useful for a few people. Gluten is a protein found in wheat (and similar grains such as barley, spelt, rye and triticale). People with coeliac disease (US: celiac disease) need to avoid gluten, but it is not a medical issue for the rest of us.

Much of the English writing on food labels is misleading or outright lies. Shoppers, especially second language learners, need to be clever to avoid being cheated.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.


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