Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent warning letters to food manufacturers whose product labels could be misleading to consumers.

Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, commissioner of Food and Drugs, also sent an open letter to the industry, listing, in no uncertain terms, the specific problem areas she believes are confusing to the public.

These areas include:

  • Trans-fat labeling on products high in saturated fat
  • Juice products claiming to be “100% juice” when, in fact, they are not
  • Food products that claim disease prevention or cure

Rock on, Dr. Hamburg.

Instead of helping shoppers, these labels often create more work — defeating the purpose of having them in the first place.

Consumers have to take responsibility for what they purchase, but doing so shouldn’t require an ever-increasing level of vigilance. Parents who are trying to make wise food decisions for the health of their families shouldn’t have to stop, squint, and read an exhaustive list on the back of every product to verify that what’s on the front is the real deal. Food labels are supposed to make grocery shopping easier, not harder.

It’s no secret that companies are good — no, great — at marketing. Their use of brightly-colored and highly-researched designs and logos, placement on the shelf or in the freezer case, and finely-tuned packaging, is a concerted effort to get people to stop and take a closer look.

In this article on its website, the FDA gives an explanation of why certain companies have been given warning letters based on their front-of-package labeling. It’s an interesting read, especially considering there are some common supermarket products on the list, including several foods marketed for infants and toddlers.

What Shoppers Can Do

1. For now, ignore the front of food products and read the back label for nutrition information.

2. Educate yourself on those ingredients that are considered healthy, and those that are not.

3. Don’t overlook the sodium content — especially in canned and highly-processed foods.

5. Be especially careful to read the ingredients in “low-fat” foods that are not naturally low in saturated fat. Manufacturers have to do something to make a food taste good after removing fat, and that usually means adding a bunch of not-so-natural ingredients.

Hopefully, the FDA will be able to enforce changes in the industry.

And hopefully, rather than spending all this time and money on following the letter of FDA rules and regulations at the expense of following the spirit of such rules, companies will invest it in packaging good, whole food. Then, there will be little need for all that print on the back of the box to clarify, (or disclaim), what’s on the front.

When that happens, the industry can spend more time selling real food, and consumers can spend more time eating it.


Caution: Landmines in the Grocery Store Ahead

How to Read a Nutrition Label

Nutrition Facts: An interactive guide to food labels

Eating Well for Optimum Health by Dr. Andrew Weil