Reading Food Labels to Identify the Healthiest Foods

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Reading food labels is the best way to purchase the healthiest foods for you and your family. Unfortunately, many people find it difficult, confusing, and even overwhelming to sort through the nutrition facts label. Food manufacturers often highlight health and nutrition on the front of packaging, ostensibly to make it easier for consumers to make the healthiest choice. 

Good luck with that.

According to ConscienHealth, the true reason that companies put nutrition information on the front of packages is to sell more food, reassuring us that this is the product we really want to purchase because we like the taste and it fits into our budget and is the healthiest choice. Unless we compare the nutrition facts information on the back of the food package, there’s no way to know for sure exactly what you’re getting.

What agencies regulate food packaging labels?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulate some food package claims, such as...

  • What constitutes a food that is high in a nutrient like vitamin C or fiber.
  • That "calorie free" means the portion typically consumed contains less than 5 calories (and I bet you thought that "calorie free" means zero calories no matter how much you eat).
  • What constitutes an organic product.
  • That the term "healthy" can only be used for foods that meet criteria for fat, cholesterol, saturated fat, or some vitamins and minerals.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) oversees food advertising, such as making sure that phrases including "packed with" or "lots of" actually meet the FDA’s regulations for a high nutrient food. However, there are many gray areas that have no specific regulations. You might be surprised to know that there is no defined regulation for the term ‘whole’, which most consumers generally assume means foods that are minimally processed such as fresh produce or whole grains.

The shopping landscape is not as straightforward as it seems. The best way to get an accurate view of what's in the food you're buying is to look at the Nutrition Facts label itself, especially the ingredient list. For more details on whole grain food shopping, don't miss the post Reading Food Labels: Whole Grain Spotlight.

By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES, CPT, CHWC

References

  1. ConscienHealth. Healthy Whole Grains, Unhealthy Labels. https://conscienhealth.org/2020/08/health-whole-grains-unhealthy-labels/ published 8-12-20. Accessed 8-16-20
  2. Wilde, P., Pomeranz, J., Lizewski, L., & Zhang, F. 2020. Consumer confusion about wholegrain content andhealthfulness in product labels: A discrete choice experiment and comprehension assessment. Public Health Nutrition, 1-8. Doi:10.1017/S1368980020001688
  3. Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center. How to Navigate Nutrient and Health Claims on Food Packaging. https://www.nycfoodpolicy.org/how-to-navigate-nutrient-and-health-claims-on-food-packaging/   published 2/5/20; accessed 8/16/20
  4. US Food and Drug Administration. Dietary Supplement Labeling Guide: Chapter VI. Claims. https://www.fda.gov/food/dietary-supplements-guidance-documents-regulatory-information/dietary-supplement-labeling-guide-chapter-vi-claims#6-4 content current as of 3/21/18; accessed 8/16/20
  5. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Claims Guidance. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/regulatory-compliance/labeling/Claims-Guidance last updated 12/27/19; accessed 8-16-20
  6. Federal Trade Commission. Enforcement Policy Statement on Food Advertising. https://www.ftc.gov/public-statements/1994/05/enforcement-policy-statement-food-advertising   published 5/13/1994; accessed 8/16/20
  7. USDA Draft Guidance on Whole Grain Label Statements. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/FDAdraftguidance.pdf published February 2006; accessed 8/16/20
  8. Oldways Whole Grains Council. Whole Grain Stamp. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grain-stamp  accessed 8-20-20. 
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