First published in Franklin Journal

We see them. We read them. We stand in the grocery aisle with a confused look on our face, as we try to interpret them. With our smartphone, we’ll scan the QR code. Some of us whip out reading glasses to see if we can see the ever smaller print. Finally, we surrender and toss our prospective purchase in our shopping cart. After all, how bad can it be?

Looking at Food Labels

Food labels. Food marketers and to some extent producers are counting on our surrender. To that end, they use ever smaller print, ink which poorly contrasts against backgrounds, and all capital letters which studies show are harder to read. Often we have to go on a scavenger hunt to find the ingredient list. Well, never mind. Today there’s less chance the label is giving you meaningful information. A well-heeled label with strategically chosen words and photos has become not much more than a marketing tool. “Natural”  “Organic” “Grass-fed” “Fairtrade” “Nutrition” “Serving size” “Ingredients” Labeling terms have become endless. Photos are real looking and enticing. Beware! The eyes can deceive.

Here are some label trickeries:

Health Claims – Phrases such as “Heart Healthy” “Maintains healthy bones” are deliberately vague. Most often those phrases are on food products that contain high amounts of ingredients that aren’t good for overall health. A product with a “fat free” designation is likely to be high in sugar. If you’re a diabetic watching your heart health, the high carb count from the sugar won’t be good for you. Look for balance. Sometimes a decision comes down to those things that we consider will do us least harm.

Low Fat Food Makes Us Fat

High Fiber – This one perplexed me for some time. I would read the ingredients to see what I would traditionally consider fiber – think wheat, fruits or vegetables – but instead I would find these in low amounts, if at all. Enter the world of maltodextrin. These are fibers, but they don’t carry the nutritional impact you would find with “whole” wheat. It may say high fiber, but it may be high in less nutrient dense fiber and less healthy ingredients.

 Calories – I used to be a calorie counter until I realized my body wasn’t looking for calories, it was looking for nutrition. Have you ever eaten a lo-cal product that was laced with a sugar substitute and you still felt hungry? Next time that happens, try eating something of equal calories, but better nutrition and compare how you feel. Additionally, “1 serving” can be any amount. We’ve all had that experience when we thought we were basing our calorie count on one serving, only to discover that the product was packaged to be two servings or more!

Calories Defined

Nutrients – Labels will often show what the food industry calls “Facts Up Front”. This means the product may contain wonderful things like calcium and highlight that ingredient, but it also has high amounts of sugar, fat, salt, or maybe all three — think children’s cereal. We buy the food with the high calcium and disregard the sugar. We know the definition for nutrients is that which provides for growth or metabolism – water, protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins. If we don’t think the overall product content serves that purpose, should we buy it?

Picture Perfect – I’ve been a sucker for this one too many times. I’ll pick up a package that claims to be sweet potato chips. It’s adorned with a beautiful photo of what looks to be chips made from sweet potatoes. I read the ingredients and discover the main ingredient is corn. Corn would cause me serious harm. It’s disappointing and I think dishonest. Food product names or pictures aren’t regulated. You’ve been warned.

Sweet potato chips

Activity-Equivalent – This tells us how much activity we need to burn off the calories. This may help make positive changes in activity, but does it belong on a food label?

Food labels present a challenge for producers struggling to keep up with ever changing preferences of eaters. Study results from consultancy Deloitte for the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association, indicates eaters are most interested in health, safety, social impact, transparency and the enjoyment of food. That’s a lot to satisfy with a label and is a move from former basic concerns of price, convenience and taste. Is it so much? I think all of those areas boil down to trust, which will take more than a label to satisfy.

The full report of the Deloitte study It has lots of data and graphs. You’ll love it!