Unwrapping the Package — What’s Underneath the Label?

by | Dec 8, 2020 | Blog

wrapped holiday packagesI learned at an early age that the contents of a package don’t always match the outside label. My mother was resourceful, so using a box for the second or third time seemed quite appropriate! This year, in our quest to ship holiday packages to family and friends with whom we will celebrate long distance, our boxes may hold a few “surprises” but the intention of giving the “perfect gift’’ remains.

Thankfully, when it comes to food, we can be assured that the package contents will match the label. But in our quest for the “perfect food,” we may be surprised that “bright light” terms don’t always add the value we are seeking. Like guessing what may be in our holiday packages, food label terminology may not always meet our expectations.

All Labels are Not Created Equal

According to the 2020 IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey, when consumers were asked to look at an identical Nutrition Fact Panel of a food product and evaluate its healthfulness based on eight characteristics, more than 50% cited the product without artificial ingredients as the healthier product. Over 40% of consumers thought that products labeled “fresh,” “natural,” “plant-based” or “non-GMO” or those with a shorter ingredient list, were healthier. And 30% identified more environmentally sustainable production as contributing to the nutritional value of the product. 1 But in reality, the nutrition profile was the same! Those “bright lights” may be more of a value choice than nutrition … or a case of perception versus reality.

study of perceptions of food labels

My Fab Four “Bright Light” Misnomers

Whether it’s clothes, gifts or food, labels do influence our purchases. But we need to make sure the value equals the price. Here are my “Fab Four “Bright Light” Misnomers to be aware of:

1. Non-GMO — This is a term that is on practically everything (and it is true). The reality is there are no genetically engineered “sister” products for the majority of our food supply. There only 10 commercially available GMO crops that exist today in our U.S. food supply: corn, soy, papaya, squash, canola, sugar beets, cotton, alfalfa, potato and apples. The frequently seen “butterfly” non-GMO symbol is not government regulated but rather a symbol of a nonprofit organization “committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers and providing verified non-GMO choices.” Food companies must meet strict guidelines established by the organization to display the symbol, so if you see the butterfly, you can know that the product has been verified. But it is not a “health halo.”

2. Natural — According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), meat, poultry or eggs labeled “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, there are no farm practice standards identified and the term applies only to the processing. There is no formal definition or labeling of the term “natural” by USDA if the product does not contain meat or eggs, and according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the term is still “under review” for a standard definition. There is a longstanding FDA policy that identifies the term “natural” as nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, “natural” does not define the nutritional benefits, health claims or the production or processing of a food product.

3. Fresh — The definition of “fresh” may be more individual perception than regulation, which creates more questions than answers. Does “fresh orange juice” mean fresh-squeezed prior to serving or from a purchased source? Are fresh fruits and vegetables only those bought in whole form? The FDA only defines the term “fresh-cut produce” as being physically altered from its whole state after being harvested from the field. From a nutritional standpoint, canned tomatoes or frozen blueberries may be more nutritious this time of the year as they were packed at the point of harvest and most of us are not harvesting fruits and vegetables from our backyard in the winter! Nutritional value of fresh produce can diminish during transportation across the U.S. or globally. One of my earlier blogs provides more insight on this point.

4. Sustainably Raised — The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has not defined this claim in regulations or policy guidelines. However, FSIS will approve an environmental stewardship claim like “Sustainably Raised” if a statement is provided on the label showing the name of the entity that established the standard along with a website address that describes the standards or an explanation of the meaning of the claim. For example: “Raised with Care as defined by MSE Farms at [website address]” or “MSE Farms defines Raised with Care/Sustainably Raised as [explain the meaning of the claim].” 2

Stick with the Basics

Food labels like beautifully wrapped packages may not always reveal what we expect. Even though the latest gadget or “flashy” label attracts us, it’s really the “socks and underwear” mentality that may reveal the best package when making food choices for our health. When it comes to demystifying the contents, count on the 2020 updated Nutrition Fact Panel 3 to be your guide for buying a variety of healthful foods from dairy and meat to beans, pasta and produce. This is one time, there are no surprises beneath the label!

side-by-side of new and old food nutrition label

Note: Looking for a gift that will keep on giving? If you want to explore more on food labeling, here is a good read from my RDN colleague Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN: Read It Before You Eat It – Taking You from Label to Table.

1. 2020 Food and Health Survey by Food Insight, June 9, 2020
2. Raising Claims, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
3. Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label, FDA, July 10, 2020