Grocery shopping can be daunting! Walk down the aisle and you'll see a slew of food labels that claim healthy this and nutritious that. Never before have food packages displayed so many health claims in the U.S., according to a recent commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
These front-of-package labels may "so thoroughly mislead the public that another option deserves consideration -- eliminate all nutrition and health claims from the front of processed food packages," Marion Nestle and David Ludwig, two nutrition experts, wrote in the journal.
That may be a long shot, but clearly regulators -- namely the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- are interested in making some changes.
Last week, the agency announced it had sent 17 warning letters to food manufacturers asking them to correct misleading labels. The same day, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg issued an open letter to the industry underscoring the importance of reliable food labeling.
"The Obama administration has given the signal that the FDA will be more aggressive in the area of food labeling," said Bruce Silverglade, legal affairs director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which had been discussing the issue with the agency for months and this week released a report called "Food Labeling Chaos: The Case for Reform."
Indeed, last fall Hamburg announced her agency would be taking a closer look, noting that "some nutritionists have questioned whether (label) information is more marketing-oriented than health-oriented."
Though many of the center's labeling concerns remained unaddressed, Silverglade praised the FDA's warning letters, saying he hopes the deceptive food labeling "party is over and we are in a new era."
An FDA study released this week found that, for the first time, more than half of consumers surveyed say they often read labels. But they are also skeptical of industry claims such as "low fat," "high fiber" and "cholesterol free."
Here is a guide to help you navigate the still-confusing food labeling landscape.
The problem: Products are marketed as supportive of the immune system because of the vitamins they contain. It's true that severe vitamin deficiencies can weaken immunity, but such deficiencies are not common in the developed world. Otherwise there's little scientific evidence that vitamins, minerals and specific foods benefit the immune system.
Example: Northfield-based Kraft Foods' Crystal Light Immunity powdered beverage mixes. The front label for Crystal Light Immunity's Natural Cherry Pomegranate drink says "Antioxidants A, C & E help support a healthy immune system."
Critical view: "These vitamins are necessary to stay alive, but adding them to Crystal Light won't lessen your chances of contracting a disease," said the center's Silverglade.
Company response: Responding in the center's recent report, Kraft said: "We do not expect, or claim, that consumption of Crystal Light Immunity ... will -- in and of itself -- significantly impact immune function." Kraft spokeswoman Bridget MacConnell told the Tribune that the firm has "a team of nutritionists and legal experts who carefully review the science and the law before we put any claims on our products."
Possible fix: The center proposes that any immunity claim by a foodmaker get approval from the FDA first.
The problem: Food manufacturers are adding fiber to yogurt, ice cream, drinks and other foods that were previously fiber-free or contained only small amounts. But there's no evidence that the "isolated fibers" being added have the same beneficial effects of naturally occurring dietary fiber. It's generally agreed that oat bran and barley, for instance, lower cholesterol and thus have a cardiovascular benefit. That's not the case with isolated fiber.
Example: Minnesota-based General Mills' Fiber One line of products, which includes yogurt, toaster muffin mixes and breakfast bars. The label on a box of bars boasts that they contain 35 percent of the needed daily amount of fiber. That's because the bars contain inulin, a powdered, isolated fiber derived from chicory root.
Critical view: "The label just says fiber," Silverglade said. "But isolated fibers don't have the same effect."
Company response: "We select and use natural fibers based on how they perform in the product -- especially in terms of taste," General Mills said in a statement. "Inulin is a natural fiber present in many grains, vegetables and fruits, such as wheat, onions, leeks, bananas and garlic. It is also present in chicory roots. Scientific evidence supports a wide variety of fibers, including inulin, as promoting regularity."
Silver lining: Regardless of fiber claims, inulin is "absolutely the best prebiotic," said Joanne Slavin, a fiber expert and food science professor at the University of Minnesota. Prebiotics are good for the digestive tract and help promote healthy bowel movements.
Possible fix: The center has proposed that the FDA clarify the regulatory definition of fiber to include only fibers from whole grains, beans and other foods. If chicory root extract is on an ingredient list, the product's fiber probably comes from inulin.
The problem: Serving sizes, which are determined by the Food and Drug Administration, often are smaller than what the average person eats. For chips it can be six pieces; soup is a cup; cereal is a half-cup. Consequently, what may seem like a single-serving package can contain two or more servings. The front-of-the-package health claims, however, only have to apply to a single serving.
Example: Healthy Choice Italian Style Wedding soup may look like it should serve one, but a closer examination reveals that the package actually contains about two servings. It's called "Healthy Choice," but if someone ate the whole container (1.75 cups), he or she would consume 777 mg of sodium, more than a third of the daily recommended sodium limit for an adult.
Critical view: It's the kind of thing one would normally pop into the microwave for lunch," said Silverglade, but for it to be considered healthy, "you'd have to envision someone putting this in the microwave and sharing it with a friend."
Company response: "We don't have statistics on what percentage of consumers eat the entire contents in one sitting or two, but anecdotally, we know that both situations occur. Our front-of-package labeling is consistent with the nutrition fact panel, which calls out the fact that there are two servings in the package," said a ConAgra Foods representative.
Possible fix: The center proposes that the FDA reassess serving sizes to better reflect how much the average person eats, as well as requiring that the nutritional claims on the front of the package reflect that new amount.
The problem: A product that contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving can be labeled as having 0 grams. So it's possible to exceed the American Heart Association's recommended limit of 2 grams a day by eating several servings of those foods. Zero trans-fat foods also can contain very high levels of unhealthy saturated fat.
Example: The packaging of Edy's Dibs bite-size frozen snacks proclaims "0 trans fats," which is true. But one serving also provides 75 percent of an adult's daily limit of saturated fat.
Critical view: Silverglade said an FDA rule states that "if a product has more than 20 percent of the daily value (per serving) of sodium, saturated fat or cholesterol, you essentially can't make certain health claims on the label -- i.e. vitamin and mineral claims," because it would make an unhealthy product appear healthy. But with a product containing high levels of unhealthy saturated fat, "you can still make trans fat claims," he said.
Company response: "We stand behind (the product's) nutritional quality. ... Dreyer's intends to fully cooperate with the FDA to bring this matter to a conclusion."
Tip: If you see partially hydrogenated oils on the ingredient list, assume that two servings could deliver almost half your daily limit of trans fats. Also check the saturated fat levels.
Possible fix: The center recommends prohibiting the use of "0g trans fats" when the products are not also low in saturated fat and cholesterol. FDA's recent letter to Nestle instructed the company to place the words "See nutrition information for fat and saturated fat content" next to that claim.
Natural: This is an unregulated term, except in meat (where it means minimally processed with no artificial colors or flavors). The FDA has no official definition but has suggested "natural" foods should contain no artificial substances. "Natural" was the most common claim on new products last year, according to the consumer research firm Mintel.
100 percent juice: Juices such as cranberry or pomegranate making this claim may also contain a large amount of other, cheaper juices like white grape. Check the ingredient label.
Hormone-free chicken: The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't allow poultry to be injected with hormones, so the claim is virtually meaningless. Hormone-free chickens may be treated with non-therapeutic antibiotics, which also act as growth boosters.
Whole grain: The FDA says products labeled "100 percent whole grain" should contain no other types of grain, but it does not specify the amount needed for a product to be labeled "whole grain." The Whole Grains Council offers "100 percent Whole Grain" and "Whole Grain" certified stamps; it says the latter means at least 50 percent whole grain.
Real fruit: The FDA does not regulate the amount of real fruit a product must contain in order to use this claim. See where fruit ranks on the ingredient list for guidance.