Food manufacturers have long used so-called front-of-package labeling — those carefully worded health and nutrition claims like “High in fiber!” or “All natural!” splashed on the front of processed food packages — to catch heedless grocery store shoppers’ eyes. Problem is, of course, these labels are more marketing ploy than legitimate information, designed to mislead, confuse and distract consumers, according to nutritionists and obesity researchers. In fact, many products’ labeling efforts actually flout government regulations. (More on Time.com: See packaged food labeling systems from around the world.)
Now, a new survey of kids’ food products with front-of-package health claims finds that most products don’t even meet basic nutritional standards as set by the government.
“Parents drawn to products that seem healthier for their children based on the packaging are being deceived,” wrote the study’s authors. “Currently, the front-of-package labeling system is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — and each company sets its own standards for front-of-package labeling. Different criteria and different labels from each company only add to the confusion, and certainly don’t provide the whole nutritional story of the contents within.”
Researchers at the nonprofit Prevention Institute picked a representative sample of products from a list created by the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. Of the 58 products examined, 84% did not meet basic nutritional criteria, contrary to what their package-front labels promised. The study found:
57% of packaged foods qualified as high sugar
95% of products contained added sugar
53% were low fiber
53% contained no fruits or vegetables
24% of the products were high in saturated fats
36% were high in sodium
17% of the packaged foods lacked a single whole food ingredient
Blind food-buying habits are likely contributing to the fact that 40% of the calories American children consume are “empty” — derived from added sugar or unhealthy fat — as recent research suggests. Currently, 23 million U.S. children are overweight or obese. (More on Time.com: 5 Ways to Improve Your Diet on the Cheap)
To reduce consumer confusion and encourage smarter shopping, Prevention Institute advocates for the creation of a uniform front-of-package labeling system that presents necessary nutrition information clearly, and leaves out extraneous data.
“Key nutrition information, including calories, saturated fat (and trans fat), added sugar and sodium should be listed in easy-to-read type, on the front of packaging,” recommended the study authors. “Nutrients associated with health, including vitamins A, C, D, calcium and fiber, should not be included since they have the potential to mislead shoppers into believing that foods with a poor overall nutritional profile” — foods that are high in fiber can also be high in added sugar, for instance — “are healthful.”
It’s an overhaul that the FDA is already pursuing. As Time.com reported last spring:
As part of its effort to improve labeling practices, on [April 29] the FDA began asking for public comment on “ways to enhance the usefulness to consumers of…information on the principal display panel of food products (‘front-of-pack’ labeling) or on shelf tags in retail stores.” In particular, the agency wants to know how consumers read and use such nutritional information, and whether there’s a way to standardize its presentation to help people make better choices. Some observers say the FDA is readying what will be the most extensive food-labeling reform since 1990.