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Trade Talk: Label us skeptical of food label claims

Article ID:
July 2014
Joseph Rydholm, Quirk's Editor

Article Abstract

Quirk's Editor Joseph Rydholm looks to food label, discussing what terms and claims consumers find helpful (or unhelpful) when buying food.

Like most consumers, I tend to take food companies’ claims about the health benefits or wholesomeness of their products with, if you’ll pardon the pun, a grain of salt. Sure, if it says “all natural” or “100% juice” my interest will be piqued but I always flip to the list of ingredients to see what’s going on there.

Even that’s no guarantee, though, as cases like the Pom vs. Minute Maid battle have shown. In that fracas, pomegranate juice kings Pom sued Minute Maid over the actual pomegranate-ness of Minute Maid’s Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend. Turns out the beverage is 99.4 percent apple and grape juice, 0.3 percent pomegranate juice, 0.2 percent blueberry juice, and 0.1 percent raspberry juice – all of which is permissible under FDA regulations.

When it comes to food labeling, what do consumers feel are some of the helpful and unhelpful terms? A February Harris Poll found that 73 percent of Americans see packages proclaiming their contents to be “fresh” as helpful in guiding them towards healthy choices. Fresh is at least a term about which there can be little confusion: only products which have never been frozen or warmed and which contain no preservatives can qualify for such a claim.

The following claims, which also have to meet strict criteria in order to qualify to be described as they are, were viewed as helpful by large percentages of respondents:

• high in/good source of (e.g., high in fiber, good source of calcium) – 73 percent;
• low (e.g., low sodium, low cholesterol) – 71 percent;
• free (e.g., fat free, cholesterol free) – 68 percent;
• lean – 65 percent.

As reported in the Harris Poll press materials, Americans are more divided on whether seeing “healthy” on a food package is a helpful indicator that nutrition lies within, with 53 percent feeling it’s helpful and 47 percent indicating it’s not. In fact, this claim is strictly regulated across a broad nutritional spectrum, with specific limits on fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium content; products displaying this claim also need to have at least 10 percent of the recommended daily value for a range of nutrients.

There’s a lot more latitude for food makers with statements like “made with” – as in, “made with whole grains” or “made with real fruit.” These labels can be applied to anything that contains even very small amounts of the boasted content. Roughly three-fourths of U.S. adults (76 percent) feel that these types of statements are helpful in navigating their way to a healthy meal.

Majorities also find packages advertising their contents as natural, all natural or 100 percent natural (62 percent) and lightly sweetened or low sugar (60 percent) to be helpful. However, the FDA has never established an official definition for natural claims. Lightly sweetened and low sugar are similarly undefined, with the low sugar claim in particular sometimes drawing attention away from sweetening accomplished via other products.

Americans show mixed attitudes toward two labels which are helpful – to a point: a majority (57 percent) feel a “reduced” claim – such as “reduced calories” or “reduced fat” – is an indicator of a nutritious product, while fewer than half (45 percent) put the same stock in claims of “light” or “lite.” These claims are in fact both strictly regulated by the FDA, with guidelines requiring they be specific percentages lower than comparable “regular” products in fat, calories or other criteria. This does not necessarily mean the products are low in these factors though.

When asked to select the most important consideration when deciding between food products at the grocery store, 49 percent of Americans point to cost. Cost is in this case followed distantly by combined (29 percent) mentions of fat (8 percent), caloric (8 percent), sodium (8 percent) and sugar (5 percent) content.

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