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

Nutrition Puffery

Food packaging has a long history, but it wasn’t until 1994 that companies were forced to present standardized nutrition and health information on practically all food packages. The Nutrition Facts panel was added and statements like “low sodium,” “high fiber,” “reduced fat” were regulated. Additionally, the term “healthy” may only be used if a food meets certain requirements—such as low fat, low sat fat, low ­sodium, low cholesterol and contains at least 10 percent of your daily value for certain nutrients. Further, the FDA regulates a spectrum of so-called “health claims”—some more stringently than others.

With the recent proliferation of claims on packages, though, “we’ve seen the emergence of claims that may not provide the full picture of their products’ true nutritional value,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, M.D., in a 2009 speech at the National Food Policy Conference. She added, “It will be important to reestablish a science-based approach to protect the public….” So in 2010 the FDA sent warning letters to 17 food manufacturers for ­violating various labeling regulations. Transgressions included Nestle’s Drumsticks ice cream cones claiming 0 grams trans fat on the front of the package, but not pointing consumers to its high levels of saturated and total fat levels. And products claiming to be “healthy” when not meeting the FDA’s criteria for the claim.

A quick jaunt through the grocery store reveals packages that boast plenty of health-related claims, some taking advantage of the loose regulations. This isn’t surprising when you consider studies have shown consumers can’t tell the difference between rigorous health claims and flimsier so-called structure/function claims. In addition, consumers prefer those lighter, more sexy-sounding claims because they sound more positive: Take Green Giant’s “healthy vision” vegetables “with natural antioxidants Lutein & Vitamin A to help support healthy eyesight,” complete with rosemary butter sauce. This product helps eyesight no more than any other similar vegetable assortment, but the packaging makes you think it’s much better for you.

Next: A Confusing Morass »

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