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Front-of-Package: Why Are Our Foods Covered in Chaos?

Imagine groceries with no front-of-package labeling. No health claims. No “Heart Healthy” badges, no “0g Trans Fat” banners, no “All Natural” swishes. No claims about fiber or sugar. How would the poor helpless consumer know what to buy?

If you insist you’d be just fine without the boisterous labels, don’t be so sure. In fact, consumers say they do use the information on food labels to help them make buying decisions, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation – at a rate of 68%.

In a recent blog post, New York Times writer Mark Bittman cites Marion Nestle’s call to fix a broken the food system. Topping Nestle’s list is fixing front-of-package labeling. Nestle wants first and foremost to put a halt to marketing food to kids. “Period. Just make it go away,” she said. She also urges a complete eradication of health claims unless they are backed up by universally accepted science – which, she says, would get rid of them all.

Sorting Out the Labels – With More Labels

Front-of-package labeling – claims that adorn food packages that are not limited to the back-of-package Nutritional Facts – include percentage claims (25% daily fiber!) functional claims (heart healthy!) and broad claims about healthiness (better for you!) and they are everywhere in the grocery store aisle. And despite a call by many public interest groups for fewer labels, those badges seem only to be growing. Some, at least on the surface, exist to help us make sense of the already mounting claims – more labels to make sense of the labels.

In a new video report, The Lempert Report breaks down some of this “sort it out” labeling. Some of these include:

  • Guiding Stars – Indicators of good, better and best (1-3) based on a nutritional algorithm. The program has been implemented in local Hannaford stores and has a complementary education component for grade schools. The badge is intended to help shoppers find an easy way to find healthy food.
  • Nuv-val – This label provides foods with a score of 1-100 based on over 30 nutritional factors. It was created with the intention simplify information about healthy food, and it can be found in many different grocery stores, many outside of the Northeast.
  • Great for You – This new badge from Wal-Mart is a pass-fail system based on whether a food meets the requirements of being healthy. We talked in depth about this label here.
  • Facts Up Front – Another label meant to cut through nutritional complexity, this effort puts facts like calories, fat and sodium amounts in bold on the front of packages where they can readily be seen. It comes from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, has government support, and will be growing in visibility this year.

The more labels there are to add to the madness, according the Lempert Report, the more it begs the question of which of the labels will survive in this quest to direct the consumer to the best foods. According to Nestle, there are few if any worth saving. Even labeling that attempts to do good are really just tools for selling, not for buying, she said. And concerns are deepest when they are most misleading.

Surprisingly Misleading Food Claims 

According to the Huffington Post, The 9 Most Misleading Labels include claims of real fruit, low sugar, and confusing serving sizes, among others. As part of the worst offenders, the article highlights two troubling label issues that might surprise you: fiber and caffeine.

  • Fiber: On a quest to get more fiber in your diet? Many people are, due to its benefits for heart disease, diabetes, digestion and weight maintenance. But even fiber claims may be misleading when they appear on things like yogurt and granola bars, for instance. While the fiber content may indeed by high in these products, it may come from isolated fibers that do not have the comparable effect of fiber from intact foods. There is a reason that eating beans, berries and bran is a better option for fiber than some processed foods with fiber claims – it’s just another argument for relying on real, whole foods for nutrition.
  • Caffeine: This labeling conundrum is misleading due to non-labeling. The problem is a potentially dangerous omission. You may know about it because it has recently been in the news. Because there are no requirements to disclose the amount of caffeine in products such as chocolate or energy drinks, it may not be obvious when we sip or chew that we are ingesting high amounts of something that can be dangerous and addictive. (Even a single serving of a coffee flavored yogurt contains 30mg of caffeine, and some energy drinks can contain up to 280mg!). High amounts of caffeine can lead to illness, anxiety, stomach problems and dependence.

Such labeling chaos has led to some organizations to push for reform. A 2010 report published by the Center for Science for Public Interest calls for making labels to be easier to read and for putting a stop to terms like “natural”, “0 trans fats”, and functional heart claims such as “heart healthy”. Other public interest groups have been vocal when it comes to more labeling which would inform consumers about foods that are genetically modified. Advocates for better labeling on beef, including claims it is “grass fed” are also at work on misleading claims. According to Onlygrassfed.com, this tricky claim means only that an animal has some access to grass, not that it is grass fed.

Until the chaos stops, every claim is backed by solid science, and every potential danger made apparent, it is, as always, caveat emptor at the grocery store. If you are weary of food label chaos, here are three uncomplicated ways to eliminate health claim fatigue.

Help for the Label-Weary 

Stick to the facts. Understanding the Nutrition Facts key on the back of food packaging (not the front) is essential. You can learn more from the Mayo Clinic’s interactive guide to the Nutrition Facts label. It shows which nutrients to limit and which to get more of. You can also take a look at our Nutritional Facts primer from a past post.

An ingredients list that’s easy to digest.

Avoid the claims. Foods that don’t have packaging, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, make their own case for health. Stick to the perimeter of the store to shop foods that are closest to their natural form and provide good health without the confusing claims.

Buy foods with fewer ingredients. This ingredient list for frozen wild blueberries shows exactly what you are getting: the whole fruit, and just the fruit, with its fiber, nutrients, and antioxidant content intact, the way nature intended.

Learn more About Labels

The FDA provides labeling information and the latest updates about label legislation at FDA.gov. You can also view an entertaining video created to help consumers get the facts about labels.

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