A number of food companies offer supposed health benefits that don't check out with nutrition and medical experts, including a product line from Maple Leaf Foods, a CBC Marketplace investigation has revealed.

Consumers are often interested in healthier alternatives — based largely on the packaging displayed in the grocery store — and are willing to pay extra for it.

Companies make reference to natural ingredients, the presence of vitamins or minerals and or the absence of substances that are linked to certain diseases.  

Others suggest consumers will become smarter or healthier, including providing a nutritional or immunity boost, as a result of using the products.

Watch the full version of version of Lousy Labels, which includes a top 10 list of misleading products labels on Marketplace Friday at 8 p.m.

Christie Harkin, a mother of two teenaged children, looks for deli meat that doesn't contain nitrites, a preservative that may be linked to cancer according to a number of organizations, including the Canadian Cancer Society and World Cancer Research Fund.

"If I see something that has no nitrites in it, I'm more inclined to take that than the one that isn't advertising that," she said.

Maple Leaf Foods, which offers a line of deli meats under its Natural Selections line with "no added preservatives," is one such product.

The packaging does include a reference to cultured celery extract.

However, Marketplace tested the product in a lab and discovered that the natural-sounding extract is actually a nitrite.

"For all intents and purposes it is bio-chemically identical," said nutrition expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff.

Food industry 'like a teenager'

When asked about the packaging, the company denied that it was being misleading.


Dr. Yoni Freedhoff says food companies often push the boundaries of product labelling regulations. (CBC)

"We care deeply about the integrity of the products that we produce and the labelling is accurate," said Randy Huffman, chief product safety officer with Maple Leaf Foods.

"Nitrite is very misunderstood. Nitrite is actually part of a healthy, balanced diet, it's in a variety of foods that we eat every day," he said, adding that the company's labels were developed in conjunction with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

However, the company sent an email to Marketplace this week saying it would change its Natural Selections labels to include the fact that the products contain nitrite.

Matthew Diamond, a partner with marketing company Hunter Straker, said health claims can often be key to a company's sales but are hard to investigate when buyers are actually at store shelves.

"I think consumers are savvy, but when you get into that grocery environment, you don't have a lot of time," he said. "You're staring at a shelf, you're confused."

More needs to be done to enforce labelling requirements and that responsibility falls on government regulators, Freedhoff said.

"The food industry, it's like a teenager," he said. "It's going to push as hard as it can, as far as it can, until someone smacks them on the wrist.

"And unfortunately there's nobody doing much in the way of wrist-smacking in this country."