Thanks to years of griping from consumer-advocacy groups, the FDA is making changes to the regulations that govern food labels. Just this week, the agency published new details regarding the "nutrition facts" portion of food packages.
Unfortunately, if you're like the average grocery shopper, those changes won't affect you because you don't check the nutrition facts. You glance at the front of the package and go with your gut—and that's exactly how food marketers like it.
"One of the big issues is that only a very small percentage of people—like 15 percent—actually look at the nutrition information in any detail," says Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. Wansink has spent years studying the forces that influence what people eat. He says that consumers analyze packaging info "only very peripherally," and make snap judgments based on dubious health claims or healthy sounding (but ultimately meaningless) language.
One example—and one that's often abused by food manufacturers—is the term "natural."
"There is no legal definition of 'natural,'" says Steve Taylor, co-director of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska. While the FDA does have hard-and-fast rules surrounding some terms, others are not defined. So if you see "natural" or "all-natural" on a product label, that tells you next to nothing about what's inside, Taylor explains.
On the other hand, the FDA does police the use of terms like "light," "lite," and "healthy." But that doesn't mean you can always trust those words to steer you in the right direction, says Lisa Young, a professor of nutrition at New York University. According to the most current FDA regulations, these terms are based solely on a product's fat content. In some cases, a box of heavily processed cookies stuffed with artificial sweeteners can put "light" or "healthy" on the label, but a bag of walnuts—which are high in healthy fats—can't.
The rules—at least as they apply to the word "healthy"—could soon change thanks to a well-publicized dispute between the FDA and the makers of KIND bars. The dispute started when KIND got a letter from the FDA telling them to quit using the term "healthy" because their bars contained too much fat. KIND objected, and pointed to the overwhelming evidence that fat—particularly the kind in nuts—can be healthy. Now the FDA is reworking its definition.
But there are still dozens of ways marketers can use language to lead you astray, Young says. Common examples include "gluten free," "non-GMO," and "organic." A candy bar could be made of 100-percent organic, gluten-free, non-GMO ingredients, but it's still a candy bar, she says.
Wansink says these healthy-sounding terms create a "health halo" that surrounds a product and makes it seem nutritious to a potential buyer, even if the product itself is junk food. His research also shows that a product's perceived taste can be altered if someone reads these words before digging in. It's common for people to eat bigger portions than usual, too, because they believe there are no drawbacks.
When you boil it down, almost all health claims on food packages are "inherently misleading," says Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and former chair of nutrition at New York University. "They imply that eating one product is going to make a positive difference to your health, when it's your overall diet and lifestyle that counts more."
She calls out language like "helps boost immunity" or "promotes heart health." A cereal box boasting one of these attributes may contain certain ingredients—whole grains, maybe, or certain vitamins—that studies have linked to a stronger heart or immune system. But those healthy ingredients are often mixed with loads of sugar, artificial coloring, and other additives that offset or overshadow the benefits.
Even if you're among the 15 percent of people who take the time to check the nutrition facts on the back of the packaging, the information you find there can still be deceptive.
"You look at the nutrition info and you see how many calories or how much sodium are in a serving, but you may not realize that the serving listed on the label is way less than you'd actually eat," says Young, who wrote a book titled The Portion Teller Plan. In other words, you'd have to pull out a calculator and multiply those numbers by two or three to get accurate calorie or nutrient counts.
Wansink says it's also common to see a photograph on the front of a box that depicts a portion twice as large as the listed serving size—which implies even the product's manufacturer recognizes the label's serving size is unrealistic. (Again, the FDA is working to close this loophole.)
Perhaps most alarmingly, even the label info pertaining to common allergens—stuff like milk, nuts, and eggs—are not always straightforward, says Taylor. "Any 'may contain' statements, or statements like 'manufactured on equipment that also processes nuts'—all of those are voluntary," he explains. If you see one of them, the only safe bet is to assume the product contains the allergen, he says.
And if you don't see one of those statements? That's no guarantee your product wasn't made with equipment or in a facility that also handles allergens. Unless that allergen is intentionally added to the product, it doesn't have to be listed on the label. "Companies are required to clean their equipment, but if you're talking big industrial ovens or baking equipment, that's really tough to clean," Taylor explains. Put simply, if you have a severe allergy, any packaged product is kind of a crapshoot.
These allergy risks dovetail with a larger truth about packaged foods: No matter how healthy a product's label makes it seem, you're almost always better off eating foods that don't come in a box or bag. "Healthy diets are based on real—not processed—foods," Nestle says. Young agrees: "Food you can buy whole and in its natural state—fruits, vegetables, fish—are almost always going to be the best," she adds.
If you decide to eat packaged foods, both Young and Nestle say the most reliable indicator of a product's healthfulness is its list of ingredients. These ingredients have to be listed in descending order of weight, Young explains. So if the front of the box boasts lots of whole grains, you know it's fibbing if the first ingredient is not a whole grain.
Nestle offers a simpler rule of thumb: The fewer ingredients listed on the package, the better.