What’s in a food label? You may be surprised

Terms like “healthy” or “natural” can be meaningless or misleading.

If you’re like most nutrition-minded shoppers, the word “healthy” on the front of a package can be a big draw. “When you’re stuck in a situation where processed foods are the only thing available to you, it can be helpful to know which foods are healthier than others,” says Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Yet these days you’re on shaky nutritional ground if you rely on front-of-package claims like “healthy” to determine which soup, sauce, cereal—or other canned, bottled, boxed, or bagged food—is the best choice. A food marked “healthy” may be loaded with sugar or refined carbohydrates.

What does “healthy” mean?

“Healthy” became a selling point a quarter-century ago, when the balance of evidence indicated that what we eat plays an important role in determining how healthy we are. In those days, the major focus was on diet and heart disease, and public health officials urged us to reduce our fat intake to keep our arteries open and to limit sodium to keep our blood pressure in check. In the early 1990s, the FDA ruled that food manufacturers could use the term “healthy” on the front of a package as long as the contents contained less than a specified amount of sodium and fat per serving.

Since then, research has determined that diets rich in unsaturated fats—found in nuts, seeds, and fish—may actually reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and that eating a lot of refined carbohydrates—which were often added to low-fat foods as flavor enhancers—may increase the risk of those conditions. The experts who crafted the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advised removing the limit on total fat calories. Instead, the new recommendations limit only trans and saturated fats (to 10% of calories), added sugars (to 10% of calories), and sodium (to 2,300 grams per day). In 2015, Dr. Willett and 11 other nutrition experts notified the FDA that its definition of “healthy” was out of date and could lead consumers in the wrong direction. They petitioned the FDA to redefine “healthy,” and in September 2016 the agency reported that it was doing so.

What does “natural” mean?

It’s natural to be led astray by this term. The FDA has no definition for “natural,” so it has no legal basis for going after companies for selling misleadingly labeled products. You may see “natural” shredded cheese coated with cellulose powder, “natural” yogurt thickened with xanthan gum—a bacterial byproduct—and “natural” fruits sweetened with added sugars. In response to consumer petitions, the FDA has also agreed to develop a definition for “natural.”

New labeling on the way

New definitions for “healthy” and “natural” may be a while coming. The FDA must propose a definition for each, followed by a period of a few months for public comment. Once the definitions are final, it may be a while before companies are required to use them.

New Nutrition Facts labels should be on packages by July 26, 2018. They will list the amount of added sugars and feature more realistic serving sizes.

What can you do?

Although food labeling isn’t ideal, it still offers a lot of good information. To get the best idea of what you’re buying, you may want to do the following:

Trust but verify. If the front of the package says “healthy,” check the Nutrition Facts on the back to make sure you’re not getting too many calories from sugars. If it has “natural” emblazoned on the front, check the list of ingredients for additives.

Do the math. The serving size on the package is likely to be an underestimate of what you’ll eat. For a more realistic idea of your potential calorie intake, multiply the number of calories in a single serving by the number of servings in the package. Then estimate how much of the package you’re likely to consume. For example, a container of hummus may have 17 servings at 35 calories each. If you usually use a fifth of the container in a sandwich, you’ll be getting about 120 calories. This approach also works for ingredients like sugar and sodium. If it sounds daunting, turn to the calculator app on your smartphone.

Minimize packaged foods. If you make your own sauces, dressings, and soups, you’ll have more assurance that you’re eating for good health—and you’ll probably get better flavor, too.