According to results from the 2014 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Health and Diet Survey, 50 percent of adults report that they read the nutrition facts label either “always” or “most of the time.” But do they understand what they’re reading?
The FDA recently released legislation that outlines the most significant changes to the nutrition facts label since 1990—including a new design and requirements to reflect updated information about nutrition science and serving sizes. Dr. Jenna Anding, a registered and licensed dietitian, shares tips for how to effectively understand those little labels all over the grocery store.
Beware of buzzwords.
Food companies are out to sell their products, and appealing buzzwords are a popular way to market to consumers—think “healthy,” “fresh,” “made with real fruit” and “whole grain.”
“But the FDA’s criteria for these labels, particularly for 'healthy,' was created in 1994, and nutritional science has and continues to evolve,” Anding said. “So there are foods like avocados, salmon and nuts that should qualify as healthy, but don’t. And others, like cereals, snacks and juice drinks—which may be full of added sugars—can still legally be labeled 'healthy' because perhaps they fit other criteria, like for vitamins and fiber.”
In 2016, the FDA announced that it would reevaluate regulations about what foods can be labeled “healthy,” along with other nutrient claims.
Understand the ingredients.
“The ingredients list—the fine print under the nutrition facts label—provides the best look as to what is actually in the food product,” she said. “If you are sensitive to gluten, lactose intolerant or have specific food allergies, look here first.”
Anding notes that consumers should choose foods with limited amounts of added sugars, sodium and trans fats. Sugar might be listed as sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, glucose or maltose, among others. However, as new labeling laws go into effect, these terms will be easier to spot on the nutrition facts panel. Sodium-rich ingredients include sodium benzoate and monosodium glutamate.
“Trans fat content is already on the nutrition facts panel, so consumers should try to select foods with the lowest amount possible,” Anding said.
Don’t be so quick to toss something out.
A 2011 study published by the Food Marketing Institute found that 91 percent of Americans surveyed “occasionally” throw away food after the sell-by date due to fear of becoming ill. One out of four Americans reported that they do this “all the time.” American households waste an estimated $936 of consumable food annually.
“Infant formula is the only thing that should not be consumed after the date,” Anding said. “Generally speaking, most foods can be safely consumed after the date stamped on the package if they are stored and handled properly.”
Two mobile apps that help consumers determine when to keep food and when to throw it away are FoodKeeper and Is My Food Safe?
Read up on new regulations.
New FDA regulations took effect on July 26, 2016, but food companies with $10 million or more in annual sales have until July 26, 2018, to comply with them. Those with annual sales less than $10 million have an extra year. Resources for exploring the new laws include the Institute of Food Technologists at www.ift.org and the Food and Drug Administration at www.fda.gov.
“Nutrition is an evolving science,” Anding said. “As people learn more about how nutrition is connected to health, they want to choose foods that can help them live healthier lives and reduce their risk for diseases. Making smart food choices starts with understanding the nutrition facts label.”