What Are Food Labels You Can Trust? Sorting Helpful Claims from Ridiculous Ones on Nutrition Facts Panels & Packages
You'll never read a food label or nutrition facts label the same way after you learn what food labels really mean
I've loved food labels almost as long as I've loved food. As a child, I would scrutinize the packages of everything I ate, while I ate, to the dismay of everyone else at the table. I would quiz my younger brother on the amounts and percentages of nutrients in the foods ("Chris! How many milligrams of sodium are in this tablespoon of ketchup? CHRIS?!") and make him guess till he got it right. I scoured breakfast cereal boxes when shopping with my mom to find the healthiest option. I think, perhaps, I was a strange kid.
These days when I'm at the grocery store, I feel like I'm walking a gauntlet of flashing Las Vegas neon signs: high in protein! with omega-3 fatty acids! contains probiotics! high in calcium! whole wheat! high fiber! gluten-free! all-natural! organic!
On a recent trip down the cereal aisle with my own kids, a certain box of flakes with "smart" in the name caught my eye. The front of the package extols the cereal's antioxidants. A green banner at the top exclaims "fiber" and "whole grain" in capital letters, decorated with a flourish of light-green leaves. A stamp at the bottom informs me the cereal is good for my heart and a panel of tabs at the top tells me it contains a couple of great vitamins. At least six different healthy claims caught my eye. It looked extremely wholesome.
It wasn't until I turned to the Nutrition Facts panel, where the "real" nutrition information hides, that I saw the kicker: there's more sugar in the cereal (14 grams, or about 31/2 teaspoons per 1-cup serving) than there are whole-grain oats. (One of the six small tabs on the front of the package did mention sugar, but was overshadowed by everything else up there.) This "lightly sweetened" confection contained more sugar (and calories) per cup than Froot Loops.
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.
The Power of Packaging
Jonathon Schuldt, Ph.D., runs a lab out of Cornell's Department of Communication. A few years ago, Schuldt, an assistant professor who studies health claims and food labeling, noticed the increasing number of health-related labels, like calorie labels, on the front of food packages: "A lot of them are candy company products, and I thought it was interesting that the color of the calorie label was green."
Green can mean a lot of things, thought Schuldt: natural, environmental, healthy and "go." But not, usually, candy.
So he decided to do a study. He sat students down at PCs in his computer labs and told them a story. He said, imagine you're waiting in the checkout lane of a grocery store, and you're hungry. You notice a candy bar (shown on the computer screen), and on the front of the wrapper is a label showing the calorie content. Look carefully at the candy bar and answer the questions below it.
The candy bar was the same, but half the students saw calorie labels in green and half saw them in red. After studying the picture and answering the questions, students rated the healthiness of the bars. The results: overall they believed the green-labeled candy bars were healthier than the red ones, even though they had the same number of calories.
Next, Schuldt compared green labels to white ones, this time in an online survey, and also asked the subjects several questions that sussed out how health-conscious they were. Turns out, the people who reported being really health-conscious judged a candy bar to be more healthful when it bore a green label. In people who weren't health-conscious? No effect at all. Schuldt writes that "consumers who are motivated to choose healthy foods, in particular, may be swayed by green nutrition labels."
The phenomenon extends beyond health claims. Schuldt also found that people who care about their own health or the environment also perceive foods labeled "organic" or "fair trade" to be lower in calories. Although, of course, calories are absolutely unrelated to whether something is organic or whether workers are treated properly.
"You get a halo: healthy is good, ethical is good, so ethical must be healthy. It's faulty logic," says Schuldt. So, people who care about being healthy, who want to make healthy choices, are more likely to be swayed by a healthy-looking label. And the biases are not just theoretical.
Last spring, Harvard Law School's Food Law Society sponsored a conference called the Forum on Food Labeling. Mostly it dealt with the legality of labeling and how to regulate it, but, near the end, Harvard School of Public Health researcher Christina Roberto, Ph.D., a psychologist and epidemiologist who studies public health policies to reduce obesity, riveted the crowd with a series of studies on labels and how they wheedle their way into our perceptions and change our behavior. One such study used a chocolate bar as its divining rod. The researchers recruited 51 students, divided them into three groups, gave two groups a piece of the same chocolate bar, but framed the bar in different ways: the people in group 1 ate "a new health bar containing high levels of protein, vitamins and fiber and no artificial sweeteners," the people in group 2 ate "a chocolate bar that is very tasty and yummy with a chocolate raspberry core" and the people in group 3 were the controls, receiving no bar. Subjects filled out surveys on how the bars tasted, how healthy they were and how hungry they felt before and after the snack.
The people who ate a "healthy" bar later reported being hungrier than those who ate a "tasty" bar, and even hungrier than those in the control group who ate nothing. So the researchers took this work one step deeper. They gave 62 different subjects a quarter-slice of bread, framed as either "nutritious, low-fat and full of vitamins" or "tasty, with a thick crust and soft center." The subjects rated how healthy their bread was, after which they left the room and the experimenter told them the study was over.
Right afterward, the experimenters put the subjects in another room for an ostensibly unrelated study, filling out a questionnaire about their study habits. There were bowls of large pretzels on the table and the researchers said they were left over from another study and the participants could grab a few while answering the questions. But, as I'm sure you can guess, the original study had never ended. The subjects snacked as they filled out the form, and after they left, the researchers counted and weighed the remaining pretzels to see how much they ate.
Turns out, subjects who got the "healthy" bread ate significantly more pretzels later on than those who ate the "tasty" bread (exactly the same bread). The only difference? The perception, the claims.
"These labels influence your perception of hunger, and that, in turn, leads to how much you're actually eating," Roberto said at the conference. "So this is a chain that's really impacting consumer behavior."
It goes still further than behavior. At the Yale Clinical Research Center in 2010, 46 people were hooked to an IV and fed a milkshake. Before they drank it, half of them saw a pastel purple and blue label with a practical font and a suggestive hourglass shape. The shake was called a "Sensi-Shake," with "Guilt Free Satisfaction" emblazoned on the front. A front-of-pack tab showed "0% fat, 0 added sugar, and 140 calories!" The other group of participants saw a shake called "Indulgence," with a deep-red label and the phrase "Decadence You Deserve." No health claims were made on this one, though the Nutrition Facts panel listed 620 calories per serving and the descriptor on the front said the shake was smooth, creamy, rich and delicious.
Of course, it was the same shake and it contained 380 calories. The researchers were testing subjects' blood for ghrelin, a hormone that is secreted from an empty stomach and travels to the brain, where it binds to receptors and makes you feel hungry and want to eat. As you eat, and the gastrointestinal tract detects nutrients, ghrelin is suppressed, which tells the brain to reduce appetite and make you feel full. But research shows the relationship is not that simple.
In people with the "indulgence" mindset, ghrelin increased steeply as they hungrily anticipated drinking the shake, and then fell precipitously after they consumed it. They craved it, and then were satisfied and full afterward.
But in people with the "sensible" mindset, ghrelin levels were completely different: fairly flat. After consumption, the participants did not feel physiologically satisfied, even though they drank the same number of calories as the indulgence group. Based on the participants' ghrelin response, you'd think the two groups actually drank different beverages. What you think about what you're eating may have as big an effect on your appetite as what you're actually consuming.
"This is why we need to care a lot about these labels," said Roberto during her talk.
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.
A Confusing Morass
The newest initiative is front-of-package labeling. It aims to create some kind of standardized system that can be placed on all products to give the consumer a sense of how one product compares nutritionally to another product. The first big push for front-of-package labeling came in 2009, when Kellogg's partnered with several other major food companies, such as Kraft and Unilever, to create the Smart Choices program. With Smart Choices, a green checkmark adorned "healthy" food packages. But "healthy" was defined solely by the consortium, and after it came out, experts started questioning how nutritious some of the "healthy" foods were. Roberto and others did a study showing that 64 percent of "Smart Choices" did not meet standardized nutrition criteria for a healthy food. After a congresswoman and attorney general called for investigations into the program and by the time Roberto's study was published, the program had been pulled. It lasted less than a year.
The timing seemed perfect, then, when the FDA swooped in, in 2010, and announced plans to develop a standardized front-of-package label and appointed the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to develop criteria and a design for such a label. But before FDA could issue its own ruling on the matter, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute suddenly implemented their own front-of-pack label in 2011, surprising many. Called Facts Up Front (originally called Nutrition Keys), the label displays nutrition information on the front of a product in a series of tabs, and it is emblazoned on many packaged foods today. The label features four basic nutrient categories: calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars. But it also can include up to two "nutrients to encourage."
"From a public health point of view, it isn't the best strategy," said Roberto. "The companies have the ability to cherry-pick nutrients to highlight on foods that may not be so good for you." Some grocery stores are developing labeling programs, too, which appear on shelf tags: Hannaford was the first, launching its Guiding Stars system in 2006. And other grocery stores have since followed suit with either their own rating systems or the independent scoring system called NuVal.
"So now you've got labels on packaging, companies' own labels, shelf tags in the supermarket. What a mess," says Roberto.
Cutting Through the Clutter
Roberto muses on her fears for the future of packaging. "As a society, we're becoming more and more conscious of obesity and poor diet, and what I'm worried about is that companies are going to capitalize on that by doing more marketing around health," she says. "The problem is, they won't be marketing healthy food, necessarily. They'll be touting the health attributes of unhealthy products."
Food companies frame their product with its package. They control how we think about the food inside, whether we expect it to be healthy or not, how tasty we think it will be, how much we eat in a sitting, and even how hungry it will make us. And packages are very alluring.
Perhaps, then, we are better off eating things that don't need labels. If you do eat labeled food (and let's be honest, we all do), buyer beware: the marketed "better-for-you" version isn't always healthier. In fact, indulging (moderately) in the "regular" version might just be the best choice.
Back at the supermarket, I push my cart away from the center of the store toward the outskirts, where the whole foods are. It may be unrealistic to think of a world where food doesn't exist in packages, but there are places with fewer packages: community co-ops, farmers' markets. The produce section. I pick up some green apples and put them in my own bag. I want to eat food I can label myself.