low fat label

Beware the Label!

Think you know which packaged foods are good for you? Think again, because researchers have found that terms such as “no-fat,” “low-fat,” “no-sugar, or “reduced salt” on food packaging rarely reflect the actual nutritional quality of the food they contain.

The research, led by experts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, appears in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

According to a news release from the university, the study rekindles an ongoing debate on what United States regulators consider healthy labeling, as producers and interest groups grapple over rules on nutrition claims on packaged foods and ready-to-drink beverages – and consumers contend with how to rationalize a purchase and make healthier choices.

“In many cases, foods containing low-sugar, low-fat or low-salt claims had a worse nutritional profile than those without claims,” explained lead investigator Lindsey Smith Taillie, a research assistant professor in the department of nutrition at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “In fact, in some cases, products that tend to be high in calories, sodium, sugar or fat may be more likely to have low- or no-content claims.”

For example, a three-cookie serving of reduced-fat Oreos contains four-and-a-half grams of fat compared to seven grams in a serving of full-fat Oreos, but both still contain 14 grams of sugar per serving, which could provide the appearance that the low-fat version is “healthy.” Chocolate low-fat milk is another example. It has the lower fat content but it is higher in sugar relative to plain milk and higher in sugar and fat relative to other beverages.

The news release said the issue stems, in part, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowing packaged food and beverage manufacturers to assign labels in different ways for different foods.

Consumers may assume that “reduced” means a healthier product. But that product only has to be reduced in reference to the original version of that food and the same specific ingredient. A “reduced-fat” cookie, for example, could also contain contain higher sugar or sodium, so if consumers are only relying on the reduced claim, they could potentially end up with a less healthy cookie. ”Essentially, reduced claims are confusing because they are relative and only about one nutrient,” said Taillie.

“A low-fat brownie could have three grams of fat per 40 grams, whereas a low-fat cheesecake” would have to have three grams of fat per 125 grams. So if a consumer were trying to find a lower-fat option for a dessert, the low-fat brownie would have relatively higher fat than the low-fat cheesecake.”

After looking at data that included more than 80 million food and beverage purchases from more than 40,000 households from 2008 to 2012, Taillie and her colleagues at the UNC-Duke USDA Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research found that 13 percent of food and 35 percent of beverage purchases had a low-content claim (including no, free, low or reduced) and that low-fat was the most common claim, followed by low-calorie, low-sugar and low-sodium.

A key question for future research, said Taillie, will address how these claims affect consumer choice and how claims interact with other common strategies, such as sales or price promotions, to influence purchasing behavior and ultimately, dietary quality.