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FDA considers solutions to confusing food labels

FDA Salty Foods
Posted at 4:12 PM, Apr 14, 2022

The federal government is considering everything in its power to fight the U.S. obesity epidemic.

One option involves a new label, "FDA Healthy," which would be placed on any qualifying food or beverage.

The FDA said in March it is studying label designs "while at the same time developing a proposed rule that would update when manufacturers may use the 'healthy' nutrient content claim on food packages."

The goal is to help people make healthier decisions.

Right now, that's not easy.

Companies often use buzz words like "naturally flavored" or "100 calories" to cover up the high sugar content of their products.

"It's the specific keywords that lead consumers to believe things are healthy," said Jeremy King, CEO of the consumer research firm Attest. "It leads consumers to fail to believe things are healthy when they really are."

Some consumers seem to have caught on.

Forty-six percent of shoppers worry that products marketed as "healthy" actually contain high levels of sugar, salt or fat, according to Attest's research.

"In many cases, the perception of healthiness is created by the packaging, and that link is inaccurate," King said. "It's perhaps, in some cases, even actively misleading. And clearly, some brands are being really successful because of this."

Attest's research highlights a major issue: Americans aren't always sure what they are buying.

In one experiment, people were given six breakfast bars and asked to pick the healthiest one.

Only 9% of people picked the healthiest breakfast bar. Thirteen percent said the least healthy option was the healthiest.

People said they were swayed by marketing terms like "whole grains."

"It looks like a delicious iced muffin and it's purporting itself to be a healthy breakfast bar, and the word 'whole grains' is there," King said. "That makes you feel good about the choice."

The FDA Healthy label is intended to address this kind of confusing marketing, but the proposal's future remains uncertain.

The label, and the definition of 'healthy,' are both subject to a lengthy federal vetting process.

It could be years before either is used regularly.

In the meantime, King said it's important for consumers to utilize the nutrition facts available to them.

"Just think to yourself: 'Is this really as healthy as meets the eye, flip the package over and have a look at the back. That will bring the health message and data to light," King said.