What does “natural” mean when it appears on a food label? Or “healthy” or “organic”? Are those terms regulated or are they just advertising gimmicks? We recently came upon a report by Tove Danovich that appeared in Eater, an online food publication: What Do Those ‘Healthy’ Food Labels Really Mean?

The article has a good discussion of common food label terms that offers some insight to help consumers make wise choices. The report came out last spring when class action suits were breaking against a popular snack bar, which were promoted as being healthy snacks. The suits alleged that the labels made false claims of being healthy foods and “all natural,” when the bars were actually highly processed and not healthy according to FDA guidelines. Danovich says:

“Its slogan — “ingredients you can see and pronounce” — implies a healthfulness that many consumers feel processed foods lack. Yet the Nutrition Facts label, tucked away on the back of the package, tells a different story: One almond-and-coconut bar contains 18 percent of the recommended daily fat intake and 25 percent of saturated fat, in addition to three teaspoons of sugar. All this in a snack bar that contains less than nine percent of the recommended daily calories.”

These suits were just one example of consumers fighting back against products that make dubious claims to health – the report notes that there were 150 lawsuits related to food-labeling practices between 2011 and 2015.

Detecting healthy foods from clever packaging

How can a consumer tell the difference between products that are healthy choices vs. products that use packaging and advertising to “fool” us into associating health benefits with undeserving products? It takes being an educated and discriminating shopper to learn how to separate fact from hype.

This article talks about frequently used label terms: which definitions are regulated by the FDA, and which aren’t. It also talks about third-party labels such as those used by grocery chains and the “Heart-Check” label of the American Heart Association, and what those mean. It’s worth a read. You might want to jot down some of the some of the common terms and keep a reference list on your smart phone to consult next time you go shopping.

Examples of FDA regulated terms include: “High in” “Good source of” “fortified” “light” “low-fat” “No added sugars.” A sidebar in the article tells what these and other terms mean.

Examples of terms that are unregulated include: “Natural” “multigrain” “lightly sweetened” “Made with real…” A sidebar in the article shows that these are unregulated marketing terms that can essentially mean whatever the manufacturer wants.

See our prior post:
How changing food labels would help consumers make healthier choices

Other resources:
FDA: Ingredients, Packaging & labeling has good information but takes a little digging. FDA Food Facts for Consumers is more user-friendly resource.


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