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Healthy or hype? 5 food label claims that may seduce you to over-eat

Below is my blog post for Huffington Post: “Healthy or hype? 5 food label claims that may seduce you to overeat.” 

You can also read it HERE.

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Have you ever purchased one food item over another because the nutrient claim on the package gave you the impression that it was the healthier choice? You may have been misled.

Many terms on food labels can confuse even the most educated consumers into thinking that a packaged food product is healthy when in fact, it is anything but healthy.

As I previously wrote, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be giving food labels an overhaul after 30 years (with updated serving sizes, disclosure of added sugar, and more), and even changing the definition of some terms manufacturers can use on labels (including “healthy”), it is still easy to be tricked into thinking a packaged food product is healthier than it really is.

Here are several—often misleading—terms that manufacturers often use on packaged food labels along with my tips on how not to be fooled. Such terms are often “health halos,” giving consumers the impression that the product is healthy thereby encouraging you to eat more than they may ordinarily consume.

1. Multigrain

When shopping for healthy grains, including bread, pasta, and crackers, looks—and words—can be deceiving. A loaf of bread, for example can be flavored with molasses or caramel coloring and have that brown “healthy” look but may not be any healthier than refined white bread. The term multigrain, for example, means that the product must contain two or more grains. But those grains may or may not be healthy whole grains.

Whole grains, including whole wheat breads and pasta, oatmeal, quinoa, and brown rice contain more nutrients and fiber than refined products which have been stripped away of the bran and germ, the grain’s healthy components. The Dietary Guidelines advises that at least half of our grains be whole grains so read labels carefully.

My tip: When reading food labels, if you want to be assured that your product is healthy, look for the words 100% whole grain or 100% whole wheat as opposed to multigrain. And be sure to read the ingredient list which tells a lot. According to FDA, “ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance by weight,” meaning that the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first. The ingredient list tells you like it is.

2. Zero trans fat

Trans fat is just about the most unhealthy fat you can have. It is bad for your heart, is generally found in heavily processed foods, and the ideal amount to have is none at all. However, products are allowed to say that they contain “zero trans fats” if one serving contains less than 0.5 grams. This is deceiving because if you eat multiple servings—which so many of us do—the grams of trans fats add up quite easily.

My tip: Read the ingredient list and if “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” is listed, then the product contains trans fats, and I suggest you keep it on the shelf instead of adding it to your grocery cart.

3. Fatfree

The term fat-free can be notoriously misleading. Many products that bear this label are not as healthy as you might think and just because a label says fat-free, it doesn’t mean that the food product is calorie-free and that you can eat as much as you want. Fat-free products often tend to be loaded with sugar and are not healthy at all, despite what many consumers often think.

I’ve had many clients over the years that think they don’t have to pay attention to their portion size of fat free products. However, many fat-free cookies have just as many calories as their full-fat version. And many fat-free versions taste awful and just leave us wanting more.

My tip: Check the label for calorie content, and compare it to the full-fat version. And watch out for the added sugar.

4. Sugarfree

According to FDA, the nutrient claim sugar-free means that a product contains less than 0.5 grams of sugars per serving. These products, however, may still contain calories and carbohydrates from other sources. As many consumers often think, the term sugar-free doesn’t mean the product contains fewer calories than the regular version. Oftentimes, it contains more.

Sugar-free products often contain sugar alcohols such as xylitol, maltitol, or sorbitol which do contain calories (although fewer calories than table sugar) and may also cause stomach discomfort and diarrhea. Therefore, it is very important to practice portion control.

My tip: Compare the labels of the regular and sugar-free version and be sure to check the number of calories as well. And do not eat too much of either version. In fact, the sugar-free version will probably give you a stomach ache if you eat too much.

5. Gluten free

Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye and should not be consumed by people with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance. These days, gluten-free products are very easy to find with the proliferation of new products regularly hitting store shelves.

Gluten-free products, however, are not necessarily any healthier than those with gluten and can often actually be less healthy and contain more sugar and salt, and less fiber.

While gluten-free products are important for those who cannot digest gluten, there is really no advantage for everyone else to buy them. And they certainly will not help you lose weight, unless of course, they are lower in calories than the regular version which is not necessarily the case.

My tip: Read food labels and compare the calories, fiber, sugar, salt, and ingredient list of the gluten-free and regular varieties. And remember gluten-free cookies are still cookies!

One final thought: Before turning to packaged foods, I’d suggest you aim to eat more whole foods—including fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, fresh seafood, and quinoa or brown rice—without fancy packaging and lots of added ingredients.

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FDA wants to know how much Nutella YOU eat.

Below is my blog post “FDA wants to know how much Nutella YOU eat.”

You can also read it on Huffington Post HERE.

The maker of Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread loved by many Americans, wants a smaller serving size to be listed on its nutrition labels.

Ferrero, Nutella’s parent company, says that a smaller serving size will reflect how consumers currently use the product, and has been petitioning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reclassify the spread.

Ferrero claims that nowadays Nutella is eaten in smaller amounts as a spread on toast instead of as a topping on ice cream or a filler in cupcakes.

According to CNN, the company surveyed over 700 mothers and claims that 60% of consumers now eat Nutella on bread, up from 8% back in 1991. And, only 2% of consumers today use Nutella on ice cream, down from 27% back in 1991.

Nutella is currently categorized as a dessert topping, with a serving size of two tablespoons. Instead, Ferrero wants the sweet spread to be classified in the jam and honey category.

Why this request? They can list a smaller serving size of one tablespoon—instead of two tablespoons—on its jars.

A smaller serving size on the food label means fewer calories and less sugar. This may give consumers the perception that Nutella is a healthier spread and may influence shopper’s decisions to buy more of it.

One tablespoon or two?

Now FDA may consider Nutella’s claims, but only if Americans agree. So the agency is now asking Nutella lovers how much they eat at a time.

Two tablespoons of Nutella contain 200 calories. The two tablespoon serving size originated in the 1990s, when the spread was used more as a dessert topping on ice cream.

As a nutritionist and portion size researcher, I’ve observed that most people rarely pay close attention to their portion and tend to underestimate how much they really eat. And they will probably spread a lot more than one tablespoon of Nutella on a slice of bread.

Secondly, even if people do spread Nutella on toast, many people use it more like a nut butter (which has a two tablespoon serving size) than as a honey or jam.

The FDA is now collecting comments about how much consumers are eating in a sitting.

Clearly, Ferrero is worried that the required two tablespoon serving size makes its product look unhealthy when compared to honey or jam.

I’ve written about food label serving sizes extensively, and have discussed how after 20 years, food labels are getting a makeover. Many standard serving sizes—known as reference amounts customarily consumed (RACCs)—will be increasing to reflect how much Americans typically eat. (We eat lots more now than we used to eat.)

The serving size for ice cream, soda, and other favorites will soon be increasing to reflect our changing eating habits.

Interestingly, research on consumer perceptions of larger federal serving sizes is mixed. On the one hand, if consumers see a bigger serving size on a package label, they will be more mindful. Especially after seeing a larger calorie count. On the other hand, however, research found that after seeing a larger serving size on the food label, many consumers will view that larger serving size as a recommendation to eat more.

As I’ve written, FDA serving sizes are not meant to be recommendations for how much we should eat. Instead, they are meant to reflect how much we typically eat.

Nonetheless, serving sizes do influence consumers’ decisions and the burning question is: How will consumers view a smaller serving size on a food label of Nutella?

So FDA wants to know how you eat Nutella and how much do you typically eat?
You can weigh in here.

Measuring spoons anyone?!

My guess would be that if we pulled out our measuring spoons, most of us would find that we eat much more than one tablespoon.

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FDA wants to know what you consider a “healthy” food product.

Below is my blog post for Huffington Post: FDA wants to know what you consider a ‘healthy” food product.

You can also read it HERE.

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

What do you consider a healthy food product?

As a nutritionist, what comes to my mind are whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and fish. Few people would debate such foods as being healthy and nutritious.

What gets tricky is how the definition pertains to many foods with package labels that are allowed to make claims such as “healthy,” “low in fat” or “good source of.”

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced last week that it plans to redefine what “healthy” means on packaged food labels.

For decades, FDA had defined a product as “healthy” if it met certain criteria such as low-fat, low saturated fat and cholesterol, relatively low in sodium, and contained at least 10% of the daily value (DV) for vitamins A or C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber.

Certain packaged food products clearly would not qualify as “healthy.” Several years ago, for example, I served as the nutrition expert for a legal case against the manufacturer of an unhealthy food product which used the “healthy” claim on its package label but its product clearly was not healthy.

Dietary advice has evolved over the years and the definition of “healthy” on a package label has gotten tricky. If a food product contains mostly nuts or avocados, for example, it will not qualify as “healthy” because it will not be low in fat (even though the type of fat is healthy). Yet a fat-free chocolate pudding or a sugary cereal such as Frosted Flakes may, indeed, meet the “healthy” definition.

This issue has played out recently.

Back in 2015, the manufacturer of a fruit and nut bar received a warning letter from FDA that they were not allowed to label their product as “healthy.” After petitioning the FDA, stating that their product contained fats, the FDA reversed its course allowing the company to continue to use the “healthy” claim on its label.

Now, FDA will be working to redefine what the “healthy” claim on a package label should mean.

FDA states:

Redefining “healthy” is part of an overall plan to provide consumers with information and tools to enable them to easily and quickly make food choices consistent with public health recommendations and to encourage the development of healthier foods by the industry….

…Public health recommendations for various nutrients have evolved, as reflected by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the updated Nutrition Facts label. For example, healthy dietary patterns now focus on food groups, the type of fat rather than the total amount of fat consumed and now address added sugars in the diet. Also, the nutrients of public health concern that consumers aren’t getting enough of have changed.

Effective immediately, FDA will allow manufacturers to use the “healthy” claim for the following products that: 1) are not low in total fat, but have a fat profile makeup of predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats; or
(2) contain at least ten percent of the Daily Value (DV) per reference amount customarily consumed (RACC) of potassium or vitamin D.

As a nutritionist advising clients and specializing in portion control, claims on food labels can often be misinterpreted. For example, just because a food product is labeled healthy or low in fat, for example, does not mean that you can eat as much as you want. And more is not usually better—it simply means you will be taking in more calories.

And, healthy foods such as whole fruits and vegetables which do not bear package labels are among the “healthiest” foods you can buy.

Nonetheless, I do feel that the “healthy” definition is outdated and does need to be revised in light of current nutrition advice.

FDA now wants to know what you think. Some points FDA wants stakeholders to consider:

    • What types of food should be allowed to bear the term ‘’healthy?”
  • What are the public health benefits of defining the term “healthy”?
  • Is “healthy” the best term to characterize foods that should be encouraged to build healthy dietary practices or patterns?
  • What other words or terms might be more appropriate (e.g., “nutritious”)?
  • What nutrient criteria should be considered for the definition of the term “healthy?”

You can weigh in here.

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New food labels reflect how much we really eat

Below is my blog post for Huffington Post, “New food labels reflect how much we really eat.”

You can also read it HERE.

Food label servingsMay16

First Lady Michelle Obama and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced sweeping changes to the Nutrition Facts labels. According to the FDA, the new food label required on packaged foods will reflect the newest scientific information including the relationship between diet and obesity.

This is the first overhaul in over 20 years and most companies will have until July 2018 to revise their food labels. Some of the changes will help consumers become more aware of how much they are eating along with how many calories and added sugar are in their favorite foods. The hope to help us make healthier—and more informed—food choices.

As a nutritionist and portion size researcher, I applaud the changes.

Here are some of the changes you can expect to see.

1. Serving sizes will reflect how much we really eat.

As I wrote in my book The Portion Teller Plan and research articles, we are eating more—often lots more—than we were 20 years ago. Many of our portion sizes are two to five times larger than they were in the past. The serving sizes on the food label will now be reflecting the increase.

So you will see that the serving size for many foods typically consumed will be bigger. According to FDA, nearly 20% of the serving sizes will change to reflect more typical consumption. For example, the serving size for ice cream will increase from 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup; a serving of soda will increase from 8 oz. to 12 oz.; and your favorite bagel or muffin serving will increase from 2 oz. to 4 oz. After all, who eats just a half a muffin at a sitting? Too bad—but the yogurt serving size will decrease from 8 oz. to 6 oz. (Indeed, we are eating more of the unhealthy stuff!)

It is important to realize that the calorie and nutrient information will also be changing to reflect the new serving size.

According to FDA, “By law, serving sizes must be based on amounts of foods and beverages that people are actually eating, not what they should be eating.” The new serving sizes will be a reality check for how much we actually eat and may hopefully encourage us to eat less.

I recently reported on research that found that larger serving sizes on food labels will encourage us to eat less and may actually help fight the obesity epidemic. However, it is important that we do not view larger serving sizes for some (unhealthy) foods as a recommendation to eat more. Indeed, that is not FDA’s intention. While you may love ice cream, the feds are not suggesting that we eat more.

To avoid the unintended consequences of more typical serving sizes, I would have liked to see a footnote on the label to clarify that “the serving size is based upon the amount typically consumed, and is not a recommended portion size.” Let’s hope FDA follows up with an education campaign.

2. Calories, serving size, and number of serving per container will be in large font and easy to read.

Great news if you are among those who actually read the food labels. You will now be able to see how many calories are in your favorite foods along with the number of servings per container without needed a magnifying glass. This is so important especially since so many people do not pay any attention to the number of servings per container. Hopefully, now they will.

3. Your 20 oz. soda bottle will now be considered a single serving.

One of my biggest pet peeves from spending a life time counseling clients trying to lose weight was the food labels on packages usually consumed as a single serving—the 20 oz. soda bottle and the small bag of popcorn. A 20 oz. soda bottle, for example, was allowed to be labeled with 2.5 servings even though most people were not going to share it. Same for the small bag of popcorn or single muffin that was labeled 2 servings per package. Finally, this is about to change.

For packages that are between one and two servings, and typically consumed in one sitting, such as a 20 oz. soda, the food label serving size will be 20 oz. and the calories and nutrients will reflect that size. Previously, the serving size was 8 oz. (which contains 100 calories). While most people would drink the entire bottle, and guzzle down 250 calories, they may actually think they were just drinking 100 calories.

This is a big step forward for disclosure and may help people get a better understanding of how many calories they are eating.

4. If you polish off a pint of ice cream, you can see how many calories you just consumed.

A pint of ice cream along with a 3 oz. bag of chips and a 24 oz. soda bottle will now contain a dual column. Manufacturers will have to provide “dual column” labels to indicate the amount of calories and nutrients on both a “per serving” and “per package” basis for food products that are bigger than a single serving but could be consumed either in one sitting or in multiple sittings. This rule would apply for packages that contain 200% and up to and including 300% of the standard serving size.

The purpose of the dual columns is for consumers to see how many calories—and nutrients—they will get if they eat an entire package (which many of us often do.)

5. You will see how much added sugar is in your favorite foods and drinks.

For the first time, under new FDA label rules, food and beverage companies will be required to disclose added sugars on the Nutrition Facts label. FDA is requiring food labels to display grams along with a % Daily Value (DV) for added sugars. The DV for added sugar—to consume no more than 10% of calories from added sugar—is consistent with the recent recommendations set forth in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines.

This is great progress and I applaud the FDA for requiring food packages to list added sugars. Too much sugar is linked to obesity and chronic disease. The new food labels will hopefully help consumers to see just how much sugar is in their favorite foods.

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Larger serving sizes on food labels may help us eat less!

Below is my blog for Huffington Post  “Larger serving sizes on food labels may encourage us to eat less.”

You can also read it here.

Food label-new 2014

In February 2014, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unveiled plans to overhaul the Nutrition Facts panel required on packaged foods in the U.S. Among the proposed updates, FDA plans to revise the serving sizes to reflect more typical serving sizes. Because portions we currently eat are larger than food label serving sizes, consumers may be confused when reading labels and trying to determine ow many calories are in the foods they eat.

Indeed, typical portion sizes available in the marketplace have increased over the past several decades. Should serving sizes on food labels reflect these larger portions?

As FDA states, “These updates would reflect the reality of what people actually eat, according to recent food consumption data. By law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what they ‘should’ be eating.”

While there are clearly advantages to FDA requiring that manufacturers use larger, more realistic serving sizes, unintended consequences may arise. For one, consumers may view food label servings as recommendations even though they are not.

Indeed, according to one study, larger serving sizes may encourage people to eat more.

Now, a new study found that larger serving sizes on food labels will encourage us to eat less and may actually help fight the obesity epidemic.

Researchers from Georgetown University conducted several experiments published in the journal Appetite and found that subjects viewing larger serving sizes on packaged foods thought that they were more representative of typical marketplace portions. The subjects also had a lower health perception of the foods with larger serving sizes on the labels. Finally, subjects shown a larger serving size label ate less than those shown the current serving size label.

The authors wrote, “The studies find that the specific nutrition information provided with foods has a significant impact on perceptions of health, guilt, and estimated caloric intake. Providing consumers with easier to comprehend and more accurate information on all foods served in all contexts could reduce overeating. Decreasing caloric intake, through changing perceptions of health or increasing guilt, could improve public health.”

They concluded that “the proposed increase in serving size on Nutrition Facts panels could lower the consumption of high calorie foods.”

Let’s hope that this occurs in reality if FDA does, in fact, increase the serving sizes on food labels (which the agency proposed doing for nearly 17% of packaged foods).

For example, FDA is proposing to increase the serving size of ice cream from ½ cup to 1 cup. Rather than view the 1 cup serving as a recommendation, I hope that instead, consumers pay attention to the calories and view the larger serving size as a signal to eat less.

Whatever FDA ultimately decides to do, I think it is important that the agency follow up with an education campaign to teach people how to use the serving size information on a label and how to better understand the relationship between serving sizes, calories, and weight gain.

And, I hope that the agency pro-actively address concerns about any possible unintended consequences that some consumers view the serving sizes as recommendations for how much to eat.

As I suggested in my comments to FDA, “I strongly recommend that the FDA include clarifying language on the label by either: 1) denoting the serving size provided as a “typical” serving size or 2) including a footnote to clarify that “the serving size is based upon the amount typically consumed, and is not a recommended portion size.”

While we patiently await the release of the updated food label, I suggest paying attention to how much food is actually on your plate, eating fewer processed foods, and more fruits and vegetables. And, as USDA’s food guide myPlate suggests, fill half of your plate with vegetables and fruit.

After all, no one got fat eating to many carrots.

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Will new food labels encourage us to eat…more?!

Below is my blog post for Huffington Post, Will new food labels encourage us to eat…more?!

You can also read it HERE.

In February 2014, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) along with Michelle Obama announced an overhaul to the nutrition facts label required on all packaged foods. Among the proposed changes includes updating the serving sizes.

As FDA states, “These updates would reflect the reality of what people actually eat, according to recent food consumption data. By law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what they ‘should’ be eating.”

The food labels have not been revised in over 20 years, and the current serving sizes are based on portions typically consumed in the 1970s and 1980s.

We eat larger portions than we did 20 years ago, so current serving sizes are smaller–often much smaller–than what people actually eat. As I’ve written in my book The Portion Teller Plan and research articles, these serving sizes may be confusing to people trying to follow dietary advice.

In a previous piece I wrote for Huffington Post, while I commended the FDA for using more realistic serving sizes, I also offered a note of caution: in particular, that FDA is not telling consumers to actually eat more.

“For the good news, as I discussed on CBS Morning News, the serving sizes will be more realistic and reflect what people really eat. Many people today just glance at the calories and think that whatever amount they eat is a serving. For the ice cream example, a consumer reading food labels will now see 400 calories displayed instead of 200 calories. This may mean that you would think twice before scarfing down the entire pint.

A note of caution: FDA is not telling us to eat more. At least, the agency is not advising us to eat a bigger portion of ice cream. Rather, the agency is informing us as to the calorie and nutrient content in a standard serving size which is more in line with what we really do eat…. It would be useful if FDA follow up with nutrition education materials to further educate the public on the relationship between portion sizes, calories, and obesity.”

While there are clearly benefits to FDA requiring that manufacturers use more realistic serving sizes, a new study, published in the journal Appetite, addresses some potential problems with larger serving sizes. The study explores how consumers interpret the new serving sizes, and how they affect the amount of food they would serve themselves.

In one of several experiments, the researchers showed subjects two different labels for mini chocolate chip cookies–the current label which states 3 cookies as a serving and the proposed new label which lists 6 cookies as a serving. The subjects exposed to the proposed label served themselves significantly more cookies than those exposed to the current label.

Results of all four experiments found that people misinterpret serving size information. The majority of subjects believe that the serving size on a food label refers to how much they should eat. The researchers also found that the increased serving sizes on the proposed Nutrition Facts label can lead people eat more and purchase more food.

Uh oh! This is troubling, especially in a society where many of us already eat too much.

The researchers write, “We found that people misinterpret serving size information, with the vast majority of consumers incorrectly believing that the serving size refers to how much can/should be consumed.”

Lead author Steven Dallas, a doctoral candidate at New York University’s Stern School of Business wrote me the following in an email message: “Our research shows that the increased serving sizes of the proposed label lead consumers to serve more food for themselves and others. Since excessive consumption is a key contributor to obesity, this is a worrisome effect of the proposed label.”

Results of this study confirm that consumers may incorrectly view serving sizes as recommendations. Hopefully, FDA will take these findings into account when finalizing its serving-size rulings for the new food labels.

The authors conclude in their paper, “FDA should be encouraged to consider ways to correct this misinterpretation, such as by mandating the addition of a serving size definition to the proposed Nutrition Facts label. The definition could inform consumers that the serving size refers to how much of the product a typical person consumes in one sitting, and does not refer to how much of the product can be healthily consumed in one sitting.”

I agree!

In my comments last year to FDA on the proposed serving-size change, I suggest that FDA should pro-actively address concerns about the possible unintended consequence that some consumers view serving sizes as portion recommendations. I wrote, ” I recognize that the RACCs used to calculate serving sizes are required to be based on the amount of food people customarily consume, and are not recommended amounts of food to eat. However, given the likelihood of confusion among some consumers, I strongly recommend that the FDA include clarifying language on the label by either: 1) denoting the serving size provided as a “typical” serving size or 2) including a footnote to clarify that “the serving size is based upon the amount typically consumed, and is not a recommended portion size.”

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, we would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations on the new proposed serving sizes.

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