Healthy Food

Is This Food Really Healthy? New Packaging Labels Would Tell You - Scientific American

A simple traffic light symbol or a set of stars on the fronts of food products would advise consumers

Is This Food Really Healthy? New Packaging Labels Would Tell You
Packaged food sold in France includes letter-grade stoplight labels to rate products on nutritional value. Similar labeling schemes are proposed in new legislation recently introduced to the U.S. Congress.  Credit: Alamy

The aisles of grocery stores are now filled with “healthy”, “whole grain” and “natural” delicacies and snacks. However, if you take a closer look at the nutritional information and ingredients, some of these foods are actually loaded with sugar, fat, salt, or artificial flavors. To tackle misleading claims, lawmakers recently introduced a law called the Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2021, which requires and standardizes a labeling system on the front of the package that tells consumers whether a product is healthy or not.

The labeling system would include an easily recognizable symbol classifying food based on its safety. One possibility is a traffic light symbol: the idea could be to make the light red if the food is high in sugar and fat, for example, green if it is low in fat and full of vitamins, and yellow if it is in between. Another system proposed in the bill would use stars: think five stars for high-fiber, low-calorie cereal and one star for artificially sweet and colorful cereal. If the product is high in saturated or trans fats, sodium or added sugar, an additional warning will appear on the label.

The bill contains additional requirements for information on certain ingredients. Every food that is labeled “whole grain” on its packaging should indicate the actual percentage of whole grain products. Products that claim to contain fruit or vegetables, even those that only had pictures of an apple or tomato on their label, should state how much of these ingredients they contain. According to the invoice, these labels would be standardized in terms of their appearance and their position on the packaging, bag or box of a food item.

Supermarket shoppers are probably familiar with the nutrition labels on the back of the package, those black and white boxes that tell you how many calories, grams of sugar or milligrams of cholesterol and the amount of other nutrients are in a serving. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration required and standardized these labels in 1990 to better educate the public, but they don't always encourage consumers to choose one food over another, says Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University. A notice on the front can be more obvious and convincing. "Research suggests that labels on the front of the package have a greater impact on consumer choice than traditional nutrition labels," he says.

But such markers have advantages and disadvantages, explains Lusk. On the one hand, some research shows that people do not always react to them in a predictable way. “You might see that a product is 'low in sodium', but that could signal to people 'it tastes bad'” and discourage them from buying, he says. Another disadvantage is the difficulty of creating a single definition. "People have very nuanced and contradicting views of what 'healthy' means," says Lusk. Also, Lusk points out, there is little space on the front of a packaged food, so the exact look and fit of the labels can affect their effectiveness.

The meaning of the symbols can also be lost in a supermarket, which is often a messy and overly stimulating place for even the most savvy and nutrition-conscious consumer, says David Just, Cornell University agricultural economist. Buyers "are only looking for the core of whether something is healthy or unhealthy," he says. Busy multitasking workers don't always have the time or bandwidth to read and consider the intricate labels on the front of every product they throw in their shopping cart, says Just. Most of these decisions are made on an instinctive, explained level he.

Just believes, however, that the new bill solves a real problem, "and could perhaps have a positive impact". Some countries in Europe have red light labels on foods to classify them based on their safety, like the proposed new bill, he said. "We are not the only country facing this," said Just. Chile passed a law in 2016 that stipulates warning labels on the front of packages. Although the direct impact of this requirement on parameters such as obesity is not yet clear, some companies have reformulated their products by removing sugar, salt, or saturated fat from their recipes to avoid warning labels.

Tess Joosse is an Editorial Fellow at Scientific American. She earned a master's degree in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.