Food Labeling: The Debate Continues

Joyce Kavaras, RD, LD

Joyce Kavaras, RD, LD

March 22nd, 2013

Are you a victim of the grocery store time warp? If you’re a label reader like me, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You go in with the best intentions to buy the healthiest foods for yourself and family – foods that will assist you in your weight management goals and not impede your progress forward. But suddenly you’re confronted with a new product in the cereal aisle. It’s chock full of colorful, eye-catching, “good-for-you” slogans to entice you to buy – “good source of calcium”, “made with whole grains “, etc. You immediately go to the label to determine if this is a good choice or not. You notice a panel across the front of the label that that looks like this. Starting in January 2011, this label became the food industry’s answer to consumer demand for more nutritional information. But what does it mean? The question still remains: Is this a healthy choice or not?

The food industry and the FDA are currently going back-and-forth about Front of Package (FOP) labeling. Food companies are in the business to sell their products, not to worry about your health. They use clever marketing strategies to attract your attention and highlight all the good things while conveniently forgetting to mention the things that aren’t so healthy. The FDA and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), along with health advocates and the White House are pushing for a standardized, easy-to-understand, FOP labeling system in their efforts to stem the obesity epidemic.

In the meantime, while waiting for the government to get their research and paperwork together, the food industry went ahead and created their own system which is not easy to understand. Hence the long hours spent scrutinizing labels at the grocery store for those of us working toward a healthier lifestyle!

What to do as this debate goes on? Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t be lured by big front of package, colorful nutrition claims such as “good source of calcium”, “cholesterol free”, etc. – instead go directly to the Nutrition Facts Panel. Take a look at these Pop Tarts – need I say more?
  2. Pay particular attention to serving size – many items, such as this Snickers candy bar, have three servings which would make this 170-calorie front-of-package highlight not so “bright” after all. And, at 570 total calories, the bar contains more than half a day’s worth of saturated fat for someone on a 1,500 calorie a day diet!
  3. Revisit your binder from the UH OptiWeight classes and read our blog.
  4. Don’t be fooled by color – yes color! Candy bar companies use green FOP highlight strips. A recent study showed that these drive sales since consumers believe green means healthier – a smart tactic for selling more candy bars. All the more reason to be vigilant when shopping for health!
  5. Be patient. Hopefully, a more standardized, simple, across-the-board labeling system will be put in place to easily guide consumers toward the healthiest choices.
  6. Finally, forewarn your family or whoever is shopping with you to pack a lunch – you might be there longer than you think.

Questions? Comments? Share your thoughts here.

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