We all know that food labels are confusing, and some can even be downright deceptive. It's hard enough to fit food shopping into your day, let alone squeeze in time to sort the labels that help from those that harm.
Our present food label could certainly use a makeover, but unfortunately, these changes occur s-l-o-w-l-y – if at all. The good news is that there are a few modifications on the horizon that may help us breathe a little easier:
Although this has been the hottest word on food labels across the globe, only 22.1 percent of food products and 34 percent of beverage products launched in the U.S. during the first half of 2013 claimed to be "natural," down from 30.4 percent and 45.5 percent, respectively, in 2009. That's according to Datamonitor, a market analysis company. The same source noted that although the "natural" claim is still a magnet for many Americans, only 47 percent view the claims as trustworthy. (But those numbers still indicate that most people will naturally grab an item marked "natural," believing that it has more potent health properties.)
At present, companies are free to have a field day with the "natural" designation, because there's no clear definition of this labeling term. In September, the "Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2013" was introduced by three members of Congress, who are working to nudge the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to create a standard guideline for the use of this term. While we're waiting, don't be fooled by an earth-tone colored package or a picture of a farm next to the word "natural." Sugar, salt and fat are natural and, most importantly, you're not eating the box – it's what's inside that counts.
[Read: Is Organic Food Better?]
Early last month, the FDA issued a proposal that could effectively classify trans fats as illegal food additives. And what does this mean to you?
You might have thought that food labeled "zero grams of trans fat" really contained zero grams of trans fat, but sadly, this hasn't always been the case. The FDA's proposal would eliminate a loophole that allowed manufacturers to brand any product with less than half a gram of trans fat per serving with "zero grams trans fat." If your serving size of this product was greater than recommended, trans fat could be a regular on your menu – without you knowing it. If the preliminary ruling holds, food companies will have to go from zero to hero by totally ditching hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats – the trans fats culprits lurking on ingredient lists.
As Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, pointed out: "Trans fat is more harmful than saturated fat, because trans fat raises 'bad' (LDL) cholesterol while also lowering 'good' (HDL) cholesterol. Saturated fat only raises 'bad' cholesterol." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that removing trans fats could prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.
Until food companies make the trans-ition, if you see a product that contains hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat in the ingredient list, put it down and look for something else.
Traffic Light Labels
If you wish reading food labels was as easy as reading a traffic light, you may be onto something. A study published in the journal Appetite found that "traffic light labels" best communicate the healthfulness of food products, in and across a variety of categories.
A traffic light label could describe foods' nutritional status according to the common colors we have come to understand since childhood:
Red: Stop! Think before eating this food; it's not the best choice.
Yellow: Slow down! Make this an occasional food, not an everyday menu item.
Green: Full speed ahead! This food has nutritional value – enjoy it regularly!
Contrary to the traditional "Nutrition Facts" panel that currently adorns our boxes, bags and cans of food, the traffic light labeling scheme makes it easier for consumers to understand what food labels mean and to evaluate the healthfulness of a food product because of the reference point element. Current labels only provide "absolute content levels" with no frame of reference for comparison.
Unlike real traffic lights, where disobeying them could lead to violations and – even worse – deadly accidents, perhaps a traffic light system would help us choose food safely. The bottom line is that no matter which labeling system is used, you will always be the designated shopper!
Hungry for more? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions, concerns and feedback.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.