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.”