Twenty years ago, no one scrutinized cereal boxes to compare calories in competing brands. They couldn’t–prior to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990, that info wasn’t on most packages. And forget about finding calories on restaurant menus.
Yet the country’s obesity rate back then was about 14 percent lower than it is now. Labels, it seems, may be doing more harm than good. That’s why the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a nonprofit health advisory, is taking a fresh look at labeling policies in an effort to make the facts clearer and harder to ignore. Here’s how not to be duped.
One of the biggest problems with labels is that while the NLEA specified what nutrition data should be shown, and even the typeface and size it had to be printed in, the legislation didn’t dictate where it should be placed. Consequently, most manufacturers will bury a product’s fact panel and ingredients list on the back or side of the package, while filling the front with such eye-catching words as sensible, smart, and healthy–claims that sound good and sell well but are often misleading.
“Many manufacturers and supermarkets seem to be creating their own proprietary ways of highlighting attributes on the front of packages,” says Nancy Childs, Ph.D., a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “With this proliferation of front-of-the-box babble, it’s very hard for a consumer to make sense of what’s in a particular food.”
Indeed, studies at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab show that consumers tend to lowball the number of calories in foods whose packaging features words such as low-fat. This miscalculation leads them to eat more of the product, even when the marketing buzzwords have nothing to do with calories. Cookies, for instance, were thought to have 40 percent fewer calories just because the word organic was printed somewhere on the label.
The assertions themselves may be true, but that doesn’t make them any less confusing.
“You’ll see no cholesterol labels on products that never had cholesterol in them,” says Marisa Moore, R.D., a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “The food might be filled with sugar or saturated fat, but a person who has high cholesterol might think, ‘Oh, I can eat this,’ without understanding that saturated fat increases cholesterol levels.”
Earlier this year, manufacturers of packaged foods took a step in the right direction by rolling out a voluntary front-of-package labeling system called Nutrition Keys. But critics say the system, like the Smart Choices program that came before it (which has been discontinued), is no less confusing to consumers.
“There’s still a need for awareness and education about how to interpret the information to answer important questions such as how many calories is enough? Or too many?” says Moore.
A preliminary report by the IOM addresses some of these issues and recommends that front-of-package nutrition information be standardized and emphasize the items of most concern: calories, salt, saturated fat, and trans fats.
The IOM is also rallying for more reasonable serving sizes. For example, a can of nuts may boast “150 calories!” on the front, but flipping it over reveals there are actually 150 calories per serving, and that the small package holds seven servings.
Nutrition information is likely to start showing up in more places too. As part of the new health reform bill, restaurant chains with 20 or more locations nationwide are required to post calorie information for all the food they sell, which is important legislation given how often American families eat out.
Of course, knowledge may be power, but it isn’t willpower. There will always be people who see that a food contains an astronomical amount of calories, shrug, and wolf it down anyway. Nothing you put on a label will change that. But experts are optimistic that the proposed mandates will make manufacturers and restaurants sit up and take notice.
“It’s clear that being required to display nutrition information prominently will sensitize food companies and restaurants to the calorie content of their foods,” says Michael Jacobson, Ph.D., cofounder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based public advocacy group. “This will hopefully put pressure on them to cut calories and reformulate their products.”
Some companies already have. Retail giant Walmart recently announced its plan to slash the salt, sugar, and fat in its own brand of packaged foods over the next five years, making it the largest manufacturer to do so. If this trend continues, your waistline will benefit–no matter which cereal you choose.