Nutrition-wise blog

Front-of-package labels — Buyer beware

By Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. September 27, 2016

Front-of-package labeling are words, pictures or symbols on food packaging that make nutrition or health claims. Examples are "healthy," "natural," "low in fat and sugar" or a heart symbol.

What may have started as a way to inform shoppers seeking to make healthier choices now seems to be confusing or downright misleading in some cases.

Consumer groups are advocating for truth in labeling and have called on food companies and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to correct misleading claims. The FDA has definitions and criteria for many claims. A start in understanding how a claim may be allowed on a package starts with these criteria:

  • Health claims have supporting or emerging scientific evidence to support a relationship between a nutrient or substance and a disease or health-related condition. Claims can state reduction in risk but cannot go as far as to say they will treat or cure a disease.
  • Nutrient Content Claims are comparative to a standard or an established value such as the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) values for vitamins and minerals. Examples are:
    • High in calcium would mean the product has 20 percent or greater of the RDI or percent daily value (DV) as on the Nutrition Facts label.
    • Reduced sodium, fat and sugar are comparative nutrient content claims that describe the nutrient in relation to another similar product.
    • Healthy is an implied nutrient content claim. It must meet criteria such as low levels of fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, lower in sodium, or a good source of a specified nutrient.

Despite these criteria, many companies have received letters from the FDA stating their claims are misleading or used inappropriately.

Even if a claim is accurate it may not mean a food is a healthy choice. For example, a claim of "sugar free" does not a guarantee that the food is wholesome or nutritious. In fact, many foods can be processed to meet a definition or criteria.

It is my opinion that front-of-package labeling is a better marketing tool than consumer tool. Want to make better food choices? Consider these tips:

  • Ignore front-of-package labeling. Instead use the Nutrition Facts label and ingredient list to guide your purchase decisions.
  • Eat more real foods — those that don't require an ingredient list or have a short list of recognizable ingredients.

How do you choose your foods? Do the words and pictures on the front of a package influence your purchases?

Sept. 27, 2016