The real takeaway: nutrition labels just aren't working
Kind’s fruit-and-nut bars have won loyal fans among hikers, bikers, and climbers for their taste, simple ingredient list, and ability to banish hunger for hours. But now, the very thing that leaves athletes satiated—their fat—has landed them in the Food and Drug Administration’s doghouse.
The FDA recently warned Kind that four of its products, including its Kind Fruit & Nut Almond & Apricot, and Kind Plus Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew + Antioxidants bars, were in violation of federal labeling regulations. Among a laundry list of mostly minor complaints: Kind had improperly labeled all of them as “healthy,” and used the word “plus” in the name of two. But instead of punishing Kind for its word choice, the FDA should be looking inward at the heart of the issue: labeling that confuses rather than informs consumers.
When it comes to food packaging, “healthy” is one of a handful of terms that the FDA keeps on a tight leash. For an energy bar or other snack to legally include the word on its label, it must have less than one gram of saturated fat and three grams of total fat per serving. (With between two-and-a-half and five grams of saturated fat apiece, each of the four bars cited was well outside of the acceptable range.) Likewise, “plus” is restricted to foods that have at least ten percent more of a given nutrient than a similar reference item, a claim that the FDA says Kind couldn’t justify.
The fact that the government regulates a nebulous term like “healthy” at all might come as a surprise to some. Since 1990, all packaged foods sold in the U.S. have been required to carry a nutrition facts panel on the back with information like calories, fat and vitamin content. In theory, that’s more than enough information for shoppers to assess what they’re eating for themselves.
Unfortunately, most of us never even make it to the back of the box.
“The large majority of shoppers spend no more than a few seconds selecting which item to buy from foods within the same group,” says Norman J. Temple, a professor at Athabasca University in Alberta. “For example among 15 or 20 different breakfast cereals, shoppers consider various factors, including price and taste. For nutrition information to be factored in, it must be very easy to understand.”
While half of consumers say they use nutrition information when shopping, some research suggests the number may be much lower; a 2011 eye-tracking study by the University of Minnesota found that just one percent of subjects consistently read all the way through nutrition facts for items they were buying.
But while they may not realize it, shoppers who make their food choices based on front-of-package claims aren’t getting the whole story. FDA regulations aside, manufacturers like Kind have a lot of leeway to decide what goes on their packaging. According to James Tillotson, a professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, they pick and choose what aspects of their products to hype based on what they think consumers will want to see.
“If you’re interested in fat, you’re looking for that. If you’re interested in antioxidants, you’re looking for that,” says Tillotson. “And what you do is decide: what is your target audience? And you label for that.”
Rather than educating Americans on how to read labels, the most effective solution may be to rethink the way that information is presented. A revised version of the nutrition fact panel currently under consideration by the FDA would print food’s caloric content in large type and cut out categories of less concern, like calories from fat. Tillotson, for his part, doubts such minor changes would have a major impact on public health.
“It’s the typical give-and-take situation. And how much good it does society, I don’t know,” he says. “I’m dubious, having designed labels.”
A more radical proposal is to stick nutritional information right on the front of the package. Manufacturers of some foods like cereals frequently do this already, under the industry’s voluntary Facts Up Front initiative. Temple and other researchers argue that the U.S. should go a step further and mandate a “traffic light” system, putting calories, fat content, and other essential information on the front of the package and rating each component green, yellow, or red, depending on whether the food contains a healthy amount of it or not. (Though, to make matters more confusing, there is a heated debate going on between nutrition experts and the FDA regarding what daily amounts of certain nutrients, like fat, should be considered healthy.)
Tillotson and Temple agree that any change to labeling rules will likely face staunch opposition from the food industry. “You’re talking a billion dollars in the economy,” says Tillotson of the potential costs of a major revision to manufacturers.
In the meantime, the nutrition facts will still be there for those motivated enough to read them. The good news for athletes who have already mapped out their diets is that the information is still a powerful resource. (While the real calorie count and amount of fat in a product can legally be up to 20 percent higher than what’s stated on the label, tests on some commonly available processed foods suggest that most are more accurate than that; the calorie counts for some whole foods, like apples, may actually be even lower than advertised, due to the additional energy they take to digest.)
For those who are less organized, there’s unfortunately no shortcut yet. “Food is complicated, and so are labels,” says Temple. “The best answer is that consumers should make an effort to figure out which foods are most healthy.”