Beware of new “healthy” food labels

Food shopping for healthy foods is difficult enough already.  We get inconsistent, if not completely conflicting, health and nutrition information from all sides.  Health food stores are not necessarily filled with healthy foods.  Packaged foods are plastered with empty health claims, from both the manufacturer and third party organizations such as the American Diabetic Association, the American Heart Association and so on.  Studies show consumers generally trust, and subsequently make purchasing decisions, based on these third party health claims. So, from a food industry marketing perspective it is not surprising that more “third party” health claims will be arriving at your local supermarket soon in an effort to “make it easier for consumers to make healthier food choices.”  Unfortunately, until all unhealthy foods are removed from the shelves, the opposite is true.  

Below is the full article from the Chicago Tribune explaining the approaching onslaught of supposedly helpful healthier foods shopping advice.  My advice: if a package contains a health claim, you’re probably better off NOT eating it.  Many of the healthiest foods you can eat, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, do not come in packages covered with health claims. They don’t need it.
Nutritional scoring


Tamara Waldschmidt, with son Nathan, 3, in her cart, gives daughters Kimberly (right), 5, and Alexis, 10, a few cereals to pick from at a Meijer store in Bolingbrook. Waldschmidt uses the store’s NuVal nutritional scoring system to guide her buying.(Tribune photo by David Pierini / July 5, 2009)



If you’re trying to eat better but are confounded by the healthy logos, symbols and claims food manufacturers put on packaging, help may be on the way. Or, you may be more baffled than ever.

In an attempt to help consumers sort through confusing and sometimes misleading labels, grocery stores are rolling out individual food rating systems. At least five new programs designed to single out healthy foods are in use across the country or are expected to launch in the next few months.

The NuVal system in use at Meijer rates food between 1 and 100, with a higher score indicating a healthier item. Nutrition iQ, which debuts at Jewel-Osco in the fall, uses a color-coded system to highlight nutritional content. Other systems set a bar so that only certain products are labeled as healthy.

But while all promise to help shoppers make healthier decisions on the fly, critics say the new tools make it even harder to make better choices.

Already, most labels are crowded with a nutrition facts box and an ingredient list. Consumers may also see the American Heart Association’s heart-check mark, which is printed on more than 800 products rich in fiber or whole grains. Kraft, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, General Mills and Unilever all use their own healthy choice icons. Shoppers often also find questionable health claims on labels, such as the boast that a sugar-laden chocolate cereal can “help support your child’s immunity” with antioxidants.

“The situation has gotten completely out of hand,” said New York University nutrition professor MarionNestle, who believes label health claims are another way of marketing junk food. “It’s not helpful for consumers, there are multiple methods [of evaluating food], and it’s frighteningly confusing.”

Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said consumers trying to buy healthy foods are lured in by manufacturers who accentuate a product’s healthier qualities but do not mention, say, added sugar, fat or salt.

“The food industry, the nutrition community and the federal government are not helping the consumer because over the decades we’ve changed what they should be looking for,” he said. “In some ways, we need to make it simpler. Maybe we need to start with the question of, ‘Is it real?’ ”

But manufacturers and grocery stores know consumers are drawn to health claims, particularly if they appear independent. A study in Appetite, a peer-reviewed nutritional journal, found that consumers are more likely to trust nutrition symbols that are endorsed by third parties such as health organizations, and the simpler the symbol or icon, the better.

But the new systems are anything but simple. Each is based on different criteria. Some exclude snack foods, candy, ice cream and jams from the ratings. Some try to help consumers find the healthiest food within a category, such as cookies. Others allow comparisons of foods in different supermarket aisles. And while a product might be labeled healthy according to one system, it might receive a low score elsewhere.

Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes cereal, for example, would not qualify for a nutrition iQ symbol. NuVal gives it a measly 22 out of 100. But it would qualify as a “Smart Choice” under a system the American Dietetic Association says will be unveiled this summer.

Unlike the shelf label systems created by grocery store chains, labels in the Smart Choices program will go on the products. Developed by a coalition of academics, public health organizations, food manufacturers and retailers, the program aims to unify the symbols on food products, so you can look for the system’s green check-mark wherever you shop. It will replace the individual icons now used by Kellogg’s, Kraft, PepsiCo, General Mills and Unilever.

However, the involvement of industry is “a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, who led the development of the NuVal system.

Katz maintains that NuVal is the most comprehensive program. “It’s not a product of anyone or anything in the food industry,” he said. “Food manufacturers have no direct influence over us.”

The American Heart Association’s heart-check mark program also has faced nagging questions since it was developed in 1995.

Consider: Kellogg’s Smart Start Strong Heart Antioxidants cereal has received AHA certification, though a one-cup serving has a whopping 14 grams of sugar. What’s more, Kellogg’s and other manufacturers pay for certification. Costs are between $3,150 and $7,500 a year depending on whether the product is new to the program or returning.

The AHA fends off the criticism by making two points. The first is that scientists disagree on how much to limit added sugars in a healthy diet, though most say less is better.

“You just can’t judge by looking only at that sugar number,” said Kim Stitzel, the AHA’s director of nutrition and obesity. “Families know that when they choose a product with the heart check, it’s a healthy choice.”

The group also notes the amount of money received is relatively small. The $3 million the program brought in was less than 0.5 percent of the AHA’s more than $641 million in revenues in the 2007-08 fiscal year, according to the AHA. Money from the program was spent on education, lab tests and other program costs.

The American Diabetes Association decided to scale back a similar program it ran and revise its guidelines after being criticized for endorsing unhealthy foods, including various sugar cereals, said Vaneeda Bennett, executive vice president for development.

“Perception is a big part of it,” Bennett said. “We don’t want to be involved with a product where the public would think, ‘Boy, why would the ADA be involved with that?’ ”

Ultimately, consumers should keep in mind that if a food has a label, it is often a processed product that is less likely to be a healthy choice. In fact, when strict nutritional standards are applied, the vast majority of supermarket food doesn’t make the cut under most of the programs.

“The real question is, is better junk food a good choice?” Nestle asked. Buying “healthier” potato chips, she said, “will delude you into thinking that you’re doing something for your health when the best thing is to not eat them at all.”


One thought on “Beware of new “healthy” food labels

  1. It’s laughable, this “help” marketers provide by marking their products as ‘healthy.’ Truly they only have their own profits in mind. I simply try to not buy food that comes in packages, like you suggest. Well, it may come in its own package…like a banana peel 🙂 And when shopping for boxed or frozen items it’s all about reading the ingredient label and being a detective. NOTHING on the front of the package can ever be trusted!

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