What Are Food Labels You Can Trust? Sorting Helpful Claims from Ridiculous Ones on Nutrition Facts Panels & Packages

By Rachael Moeller Gorman, "The Whole-Grain, Reduced-Fat, Zero-Calorie, High-Fiber, Lightly Sweetened TRUTH About Food Labels," September/October 2013

You'll never read a food label or nutrition facts label the same way after you learn what food labels really mean

It seems this cacophony of heady health claims is food manufacturers’ way of elbowing ahead of competitors.* “There’s always a fight for foods to be different from what’s out there,” says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., EatingWell advisor, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell and author of several books on the topic, such as the upcoming Slim By Design, Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life. Companies know we want healthy options and are willing to pay for them. A recent NPD Group market analysis found that people are increasingly interested in adding “good things” to food (more is better!), as opposed to removing bad things (fat, cholesterol). So it’s not surprising that the average number of “benefits” listed on the most successful new foods and beverages has increased almost 50 percent over the last decade.

Health (or the appearance of health) sells. Sixty-six percent of consumers at least occasionally buy food because of a specific healthy ingredient, according to Packaged Facts consumer insights survey data. And the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization, found recently that lower-calorie products from such companies as General Mills, Kraft Foods and Campbell Soup drove 82 percent of sales growth from 2006 to 2011.

But companies may be tumbling toward a questionable extreme. At the end of May, Kellogg’s agreed to a $4 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit that accused the company of falsely advertising Frosted Mini-Wheats as a food that improves kids’ memory and attentiveness. Anyone who bought Frosted Mini-Wheats during several months in 2008 and 2009 is entitled to $5 per box back from the fund, up to $15 total. (Kellogg’s admitted no wrongdoing.) Additionally, at the end of 2012, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group was sued because its Cherry Antioxidant, Mixed Berry Antioxidant and Pomegranate Antioxidant 7UP soda names are misleading, said plaintiffs. The beverages were simply sweet soda plus vitamin E at levels not shown to provide significant health benefits; they did not include any of the healthful fruits pictured on the packages. The sodas were pulled from shelves—for un­related reasons, says the company.

But there’s more going on. Just the overall impression that you’re eating a healthy product—be that because of a litany of healthy claims on the package or just a healthy-looking design—strongly influences how you perceive the food and how much of it you eat.

Surprisingly, it’s not the uninformed consumer who succumbs to healthy-sounding or healthy-looking products. The people who are most influenced “are the people who care about the food being ­organic, or pesticide-free, or free-range, or fat-free, or non-GMO,” says Wansink. In other words, you.

Next: The Power of Packaging »

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