If a sugar-free cookie tastes too good to be true, there could be a reason.
That cookie may not be sugar-free at all - even if the "nutrition facts" label says so.
In these days of epidemic obesity, diligent consumers are reading the nutrition labels on packaged foods, but apparently they're the only ones doing so regularly.
Although Congress has forced food manufacturers to place nutrition facts labels on their products since 1990, the Food and Drug Administration doesn't have enough staff to check labels' accuracy. So where does that leave a consumer?
Too often, in the dark.
"Consumers have such a hard time trying to eat healthfully and keep their calories in check," said Delia Hammock, nutrition director for the Good Housekeeping Institute. "We're always saying, `Read the label, read the label.' And then you find out that the labels are lying ... It's wrong."
Although the FDA doesn't regularly check nutrition labels, a handful of organizations is trying to fill the gap, including the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which tests hundreds of products each year in its Tallahassee food lab. In addition, testers at ConsumerLab.com, along with the Good Housekeeping Institute, also dabble in nutrition-label testing.
During the past decade, Hammock has become a label crusader. She monitors diet chat rooms to learn which low-calorie or low-carb products people are buzzing about.
Then she sends samples of the product to an independent lab for testing.
In one case, her co-workers were raving about Pirate's Booty, a cheese-flavored puffed-rice snack. The label boasted that one serving contained 120 calories and 2.5 grams of fat. Yet when Hammock tasted it, she knew better.
"It didn't taste like a low-fat, low-calorie snack. It tasted like Cheez Doodles," she said.
Indeed, the lab found that Pirate's Booty contained 147 calories and 8.5 grams of fat per serving - 6 grams more than the label claimed.
A few months ago, Hammock uncovered another label lie. She was suspicious because Rising Dough Bakery cookies, which are sold at Jamba Juice and online retailers, are the size of a compact disc, and yet the label says they contain fewer than 100 calories per serving.
"I've been in the field for a long time," she said. "You know how many calories a cookie has. When you taste something that doesn't taste like it's possible, it's probably not."
The company's oatmeal cranberry raisin cookie lists 70 calories per serving, which is half of one cookie. However, the lab found that each half cookie contained 153 calories - more than double the label's claim.
Although consumers don't have many advocates on their side, Florida's Department of Agriculture regularly tests food products to see if ingredients match the nutrition label.
In the past two years, the agency has tested more than 700 products and found about 70 violations - one violation for every 10 products tested.
In Florida, violators receive one violation notice and, if the product isn't corrected, they receive a $500 fine for subsequent violations.
Yet, with the exception of Florida, few government entities watch the nutrition-label cheating, said Bruce Silverglade of Center for Science in the Public Interest.
When trendy diets hit the market, he said that food makers may claim their products are low-carb or low-sugar - even if they're not. "Often these fads come and go ... long before the FDA gets a handle on it."
In 2005, when the Atkins diet and the South Beach Diet spurred consumers to buy low-carb foods, a host of low-carb energy bars showed up on store shelves. When Consumer Lab.com tested 34 nutrition bars, they found that three bars failed - one had 33 percent more carbs than listed; another contained 50 percent more fat than the label noted, and a third contained 27 percent more saturated fat than what was listed on the label.
When notified, most of the companies change the label, Hammock said. Some of the label misinformation is a simple mistake, she said, but at other times, it appears deceptive.
What's unfortunate, she said, is that testing isn't more widespread.
"I think if you tested products more, you would find even more cheating," Hammock said. "It's very, very easy to lie on the food label because there is no one checking, and there's very little risk if they get caught."