Consumers often pay more for products advertised as "all-natural," "hypoallergenic," or with other words and phrases that sound good but can mean whatever the seller wants.
Photo illustration / Business Wire
Every time I go shopping for a food item or a household item, I’m always bombarded with all sorts of nonsensical and largely meaningless terms plastered all over products. The words are often tied to products that, frankly, I view as overpriced for various reasons.
I decided to catalogue a few of these wonderful meaningless words that people pay for.
New The “cult of the new” is an expensive one that has a lot of adherents. New products are usually priced quite highly – and usually attract buyers who are simply looking for a “new” experience. At the same time, of course, “new” products are ones that have not stood the test of time. They might be good – they might be awful. For my dollar, I think I’ll stick with a Consumer Reports recommendation and pick up a product that I know works that doesn’t have that “new” premium price.
Now 28% better! Whenever you see a comparison like this, ask yourself two things: in what way is it better and how is that “better” actually measured? If you read this type of statement and think for a moment, you realize that it could mean anything at all – better blue color in the liquid laundry detergent and so on. Unless the product is precisely stating what the improvement is, such a statement doesn’t have any meaning – or value – at all.
Hypoallergenic It’s a nice-sounding term that doesn’t mean a thing. Why? There is no official standard for what the word means. There isn’t even a voluntary standard that defines the term. It does not mean that the product won’t cause an allergic reaction. It might, at best, mean that the marketers think that the stuff in the product probably won’t cause an allergic reaction – which really doesn’t mean much at all, does it?
Fragrance-free Wouldn’t it be nice if “fragrance free” actually meant that the product doesn’t contain any fragrance? In truth, the product is usually “smell-free” or some attempt at it. Instead of not including a fragrance, what often happens is that a finished product with a fragrance in it has something added to eliminate or mask the smell. If it’s done well enough, marketers will slap this label on it – but if you’re allergic to fragrances, it really doesn’t mean much at all.
All natural The word “natural” can basically mean anything. There are no standards at all for what this word means. Try this: compare a “natural” product to a similar one that doesn’t have “natural” written on the label and see what exactly is different in the ingredients list. I’ll go ahead and tell you: not much is different.
Never tested on animals This one actually is true on the shallow surface: the product hasn’t been tested on animals. However, that statement is saying nothing at all about the ingredients that make up the product – most of those were likely tested on animals before they were approved for wide use. There are almost no ingredients in cosmetics and medicines for human use that weren’t already tested on animals.
Best-of-breed Such statements usually imply that the product is the best among its competitors. However, when you’re allowing the company to define who the competition is, they usually define that competition as narrowly as possible: “dog foods that use these 25 ingredients and these 6 coloring agents” or something to that effect. It’s easy to be best-of-breed when you’re the only one in the group.
Organic A caveat: when you actually see the USDA Organic label on food products, that label has specific meaning: the item comes from (or the ingredients come from) a farm that lives up to the USDA Organic standards for plant and animal treatment, which encompasses quite a few things – no hormones, no pesticides, and so on. However, the word “organic” is often used in contexts that have nothing to do with farms or the USDA Organic certification – it’s just used as a buzzword for a product that’s trying to sell itself as being “all natural,” as mentioned above.
Superfood This is yet another term without any sort of legal definition. Thus, it’s ofen applied to all kinds of things to encourage sales – particularly high-priced fruits, vegetables, juices, and vitamins. Guess what? A well-balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables of all kinds will take care of your nutrition needs without spending extra money on the exotic semi-bogus “superfood” of the week.
Nontoxic Again, this is a term that has no standard definition and no verification process to ensure that the product meets that non-existent definition. If a manufacturer thinks the product probably won’t kill you if you eat it and doesn’t contain anything that’s blatantly known as a toxic chemical, they can put a “nontoxic” label on it. But if it’s not food, why are you eating it anyway?
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