Could an FDA-Backed Universal “Healthy” Label Make Grocery Shopping Easier?
The FDA recently overhauled the design and contents of nutrition labels, but consumers are still struggling to find healthy choices in the grocery aisles. A recent survey, conducted by the American Heart Association and the International Food Information Council, showed 95 percent of Americans at least sometimes look for healthy food choices while shopping, but only 28 percent find it easy to figure out which products are actually healthy.
This survey was conducted among 1,017 participants between age 18-80 who had sole or shared responsibility for buying groceries in their household. A majority of survey participants identified nutrition facts panels and ingredients lists as the mechanisms they use most for deciding whether or not a product is healthy.
Of course, that wasn't the primary reason most people made a purchase: Taste was the most important factor in purchasing an item at the grocery store, followed by its price. But whether or not it had been deemed healthy (defined by the survey as having one or more "healthy symbol[s] on [the] package") ranked third.
About half of the consumers surveyed currently pay attention to such health-related symbols on product labels as the Whole-Grain Stamp or the Heart-Check symbol. The survey found health-related organizations and those in charge of issuing these health-related symbols were more trusted than the FDA and food companies, on average.
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Over half of those surveyed said they would like a universal “healthy” label that could be appended to food products. 45 percent said they would be more likely to purchase a product with that label. The FDA has current standards in place for which products can label themselves as “healthy” or not, however, they are in the midst of redefining these guidelines, as nutrition science and food production has evolved.
There are two standards currently in place to define a food as “healthy.” The first is, if a product isn’t low-fat, it should have a fat profile makeup of mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The guidelines say this is because they no longer want consumers to be afraid of heart-healthy fats as nutritional science has shown many benefits to eating good fats.
The other standard is that a food should contain 10 percent or more of the daily value for either Vitamin D or potassium, as the FDA noted they are no longer worried about Americans’ intake of Vitamin A or C. The guidelines said the agency is still concerned about calcium and iron intakes. Of course, this leaves out a lot of nutritional needs, and simply following these guidelines would not ensure that you are getting enough other essential nutrients, to say nothing of gut health, fiber intake, sodium, and more.
In a world of constantly conflicting nutrition science from a variety of interested parties and stakeholders, defining a generic “healthy” will not be an easy feat. With the rise in popularity of both the animal protein-heavy keto diet and plant-based diets, the agency has a large undertaking in deciding how to guide consumers to find truly healthy foods. Even still, some health food companies are hoping it will be a great next step in consumer nutrition education.
“We have been thinking about this issue since 2015 when we filed a petition asking FDA to revisit how the term “healthy” is defined and used on food labels,” says Stephanie Perruzza, registered dietitian and health and wellness expert at KIND, in an email conversation with Cooking Light.
Perruzza says the company’s priority is to empower consumers to make informed eating decisions. According to Perruza KIND was the first snack food company to reveal the amount of added sugars in their foods before it was required by the FDA. A universal “healthy” label could reward companies trying to assist consumers in eating healthier and police other food companies who are less health-conscious.
“We recognize that food labels don’t always [empower the consumer], which is why a universal label could be a useful tool in helping more people understand what foods contribute to a healthy diet and which don’t,” Perruzza says. “We know the FDA has been hard at work with consumers’ best intentions in mind and we’re eager to see what they come up with.”
Until the FDA shares their new definition with us, Brierley Horton MS RD, says there are two keys to finding a healthy product at the grocery store consumers should always watch out for.
“Start first with portion size because that will dictate if the number below are reasonable or not,” Horton said. “In other words, will you eat three servings, and even if the nutrition numbers look healthy, do they still seem healthy multiplied times three?”
Horton also advises looking at the ingredients list, particularly at the first ingredients.
“Is it what should be first, or is it an unexpected and perhaps less than healthy ingredient?”