Food Labeling 101

Marygrace Taylor

food labeling

Picture this: You’re standing in the cereal aisle, gaping, because it seems like 10 new varieties of the breakfast staple have popped up since last week. And they all sound so great (“Made with real fruit!” “Will improve digestion!”), that you’re practically paralyzed over which one to toss in your cart. Okay, so that might be an exaggeration, but not by much. Food manufacturers really do roll out a whopping 20,000 new packaged food and beverage products every year, and they’ll do whatever they can to make sure those items capture your attention.

Usually, that’s by using wholesome imagery or trendy buzzwords to tout a product’s healthful-ness. “It seems like we’re living in this increasingly labeled and packaged world. Every time we go to the supermarket, there’s always new food claims, labels, advertising, and colorful slogans that seem designed to influence how we perceive packaging,” says Jonathon Schuldt, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication at Cornell University who researches judgment and decision-making based on food labeling and health claims.

In fact, in 2010 alone (the most recent stats available), food manufacturers debuted more than 100 new product claims or tags designed to catch your eye. And that might not be so bad if everything on a package label was actually true. But due to fierce competition among dueling brands and lax government regulations, “many food manufacturers slap on labels and buzzwords that are misleading and don’t necessarily indicate how healthy a product is,” says Rania Batayneh, M.P.H., a nutritionist and author of The One One One Diet. Here’s an in-depth look at some of the most confusing food labeling practices facing parents today—and how you can make smarter choices at the grocery store.

It’ll make your 
kid smarter

Among the things you see on
food labels, health statements
that go beyond basic nutrition
are some of the most perplex
ing. With what the USDA calls 
health- and nutrition-related
 claims, they let you know that
 your oatmeal can lower cho
lesterol, or that your yogurt
can ease constipation. What’s
 more, they aren’t always based
on sound scientific evidence.
 Take a series of Kellogg’s Frosted Mini Wheats commercials that aired in 2008 and 2009 and asserted that the cereal improved kids’ attention span and memory by 20 percent. The claim was wildly false (in a Kellogg-funded study, only one in seven kids who ate Frosted Mini Wheats had thinking and memory improvements of 18 percent or higher), and last year, the manufacturer agreed to pay $4 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought against it.

The FDA says functional food claims have to be backed up with credible research. But the government doesn’t review claims ahead of time, so false ones only tend to get noticed after a product has been on store shelves. That can be a big source of confusion for consumers.

“Basically, these health claims indicate that there may have been a study at one point, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the claim is true,” say Jayson Calton, Ph.D., and Mira Calton, CN, authors of Rich Food Poor Food: The Ultimate Grocery Purchasing System. And so, it’s up to shoppers to be savvy. If a food’s health claim seems too amazing to be the real deal, it very well might be. And if you want to take it a step further, you can look up the research yourself on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website,


But it’s all-natural!

In the world of packaged foods, “natural” is a big offender. In 2010, the term was slapped on nearly 10 percent of packaged foods and drinks, according to the USDA. And although the FDA suggests that foods labeled as natural be free of added colors, artificial flavors, and synthetic substances, there’s no official definition or law that sets standards for food manufacturers.

What’s more, even if a food claiming to be natural really is, that still isn’t an indicator of whether said food is actually nutritional. “Even natural products can contain tons of added sugar, sodium, and fat,” Batayneh says. Consider 100 percent fruit juices or gummy snacks: Both are made from fruit, which is a wholesome, natural ingredient, but they also happen to be high in sugar, meaning they’re better suited to be occasional treats than everyday foods.

And as for the term organic? Though heavily regulated by the USDA, it still manages to bewilder. Foods bearing the certified organic logo must be produced without synthetic chemicals, fertilizers, or pesticides; and animal products without antibiotics and growth hormones. And from that perspective, they’re absolutely healthier for families. But when it comes to more basic things like calories, fat, and sugar, organic food will be identical to its conventional counterparts—which means you still need to pay close attention to what you’re buying. Organic chips are still chips, and that means they’re a treat, not a health food.

In fact, studies show that consumers believe organic foods—even ones like cookies—have fewer calories and more nutrition than the same conventional products. And foods that aren’t actually organic but appear to have an organic “feel” to them (like granola bars or juice drinks), are subject to the same bias: In a recent Cornell study, Schuldt and his colleagues found that consumers are more likely to perceive candy bars with green labels to be healthy, compared to candy bars with red or white labels. “The color green has positive, healthy associations,” says Schuldt.

And if you think these findings only apply to consumers who simply don’t know much about natural and organic foods, you’d be wrong. Across his research, Schuldt consistently finds that consumers who say they care about the environment are actually more likely to think organic or natural equals superfood. “You’d think people who have a high knowledge of organics would be less likely to be biased by labels, but they actually tend to see organics in a magical light,” he says. “If you care about the environment, you sort of fall in love with the stuff that’s supposed to be good for it.”

Sugar, sugar everywhere

Some foods, like candy, cookies, and soda, make it easy to know exactly what you’re getting when you eat them: Sugar. And while eating sweets is fine once in a while, the problem comes when foods designed to seem wholesome are actually junk in disguise.

Think about it this way: The American Heart Association recommends kids ages 4 to 8 eat no more than 3 teaspoons of added sugar daily. The average kid, though, gets a whopping 21 teaspoons each day. That number comes partly from expected sources like dessert and soda, but non-dessert foods with hidden sources of added sugar, like cereal, are also to blame, finds a 2009 American Heart Association report.

Food that says it contains or is made with real fruit could be suspect, too, as that’s a common way for manufacturers to make a food seem more nutritious than it actually is. That claim usually means it’s made with very little fruit and a lot of sugar or other stuff you probably don’t want your child eating, say the Caltons. Tomato sauce, salad dressings, whole grain bread and crackers, jams and jellies, flavored yogurt, and granola bars are often loaded with added sugars.

And as consumers continue to get savvier about added sugars, manufacturers are trying to stay ahead of the curve by cloaking plain old sugar in hard-to-understand names like crystalline fructose, glucose, dextrose, or maltose; or with healthy-sounding sweeteners like agave nectar, molasses, evaporated cane juice, or fruit juice concentrate. Then, there’s the biggest, baddest sweetener of them all: high fructose corn syrup. HFCS contains fructose, a type of sugar that research suggests boosts obesity risks and even increases hunger signals in the brain that encourage overeating. After growing public skepticism and a failed PR attempt (remember those families walking through the cornfields?), conventional brands like Kraft, Pepsi, and Healthy Choice began removing HFCS from their products.

Many consumers perceive non-HFCS sweeteners to be healthier, and in some instances, more natural—which might be the case. But when it really gets down to it, whether it’s chemically processed or certified organic, no type of sugar is actually good for you. “Both high fructose corn syrup and sugar are high in calories, void of nutrients, and when consumed in excess, can lead to obesity,” Batayneh says. “Since there isn’t conclusive evidence that either is better for you, the best thing is to look for products with as little added sugar as possible.”

How to shop smart

In a world where packaged food is thought to be a source of confusion as well as not-so-nutritious calories, not buying the stuff is the obvious fix. So when you can, cook from scratch, and rely on whole foods like fresh fruits and veggies, nuts, or air-popped popcorn. You’ll eliminate uncertainty at the grocery store, plus save money and reduce waste.

Still, packaged foods are convenient, and most parents won’t be clearing them out completely anytime soon. That’s why most experts agree that the best way to know exactly what you’re feeding your family is to ignore the front of a food’s package and head straight to the nutrition facts panel. “Look for products that contain at least 2 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein, between 8 and 10 grams of unsaturated fats, no more than 200 milligrams sodium, and no more than 15 grams sugar per serving,” says Batayneh. (Most of us don’t look quite as closely at nutrition labels as we think we do, says a University of Minnesota study, so be sure to take your time.)

You’ll find more clues on the ingredients list: “The fewer ingredients there are, the better. And look for ingredients that you can recognize and pronounce, like whole oats or cranberries versus something like sodium tripolyphosphate,” says Batayneh. Also scan for added fats, particularly partially hydrogenated oil, which indicates harmful trans fats. (Foods containing less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving will say 0 grams, but if they contain any partially hydrogenated oil, they still contain small amounts of trans fat.)

And if reading labels for every single item you toss in your cart sounds impossible, remember, you don’t need to tackle the entire grocery store at once. The Caltons suggest taking one food group at a time, learning what makes foods in that aisle healthy (or unhealthy) and finding the brands and products that meet your criteria and can become your go-to staples. “You’ll find a lot of the rules for one food group, like no added sugars, overlap with rules for other groups, so it only gets easier as you go along,” they say.

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