With just a few short minutes to dash into the supermarket between work and daycare pickup or to place a FreshDirect order during naptime, front-of-package labels offer a convenient way for time-pressed parents to quickly assess a food’s nutritional value.
However, as vigilant as we may be about nourishing our little ones, the various claims on the food we buy for our kids can be confusing at best and misleading at worst. And while parents aren’t likely to be swayed into a sugar-loaded snack purchase by a cute cartoon character in the same way a child might be, we’re certainly not immune to the powers of food marketing.
Food manufacturers know what consumers are looking for and capitalize on that with front-of-package health claims, according to Dr. Natalie Muth, MD, RD, a pediatrician and registered dietitian based in California. “The front of package labeling is very misleading and confusing, and I really don’t think it should be relied upon to decide if a food’s healthy,” she says. “The more health messaging on a package, the more likely it is that it’s not that healthy,”
So which labels can parents rely on, and which ones are overblown?
Organic doesn’t always equal healthy
If there’s one label that’s as alluring to adults as a cartoon character is to kids, it’s ‘organic.’ According to the Economic Research Service, organic food sales more than doubled from 1994 to 2014, and is expected to be a $70.4 billion industry by 2025. Millennial parents are especially drawn to organics — they’re thought to be the biggest group of organic buyers in the U.S..
As a food label, ‘organic’ is pretty straightforward. It describes a method of farming and it’s regulated by the USDA. In order to bear this moniker, produce must be grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
On packaged foods ‘organic’ means at least 95% of its ingredients are organic, and it contains no artificial preservatives. An organic label on meat, poultry, or eggs indicates that the animal was fed organic feed and not given antibiotics or hormones, explains Lindsay Moyer, MS, RDN, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
But 76% of the people who seek out organic foods are doing it because they perceive organic food to be healthier. Millennial parents, too, seem to prioritize organic foods for health reasons. Their decision to buy organic is mostly motivated by the desire to provide nutritious food for their family, followed by concerns about pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics on their children’s health, according to the Organic Trade Association.
This is where eating organic becomes less straightforward.
Despite the perception that organic foods are healthier than conventional foods, research has yet to prove that organic food is significantly more nutritious. “When these foods have been analyzed for nutrient content, they have not found a significant difference between organic and conventional foods,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that organic foods don’t have benefits. “It may not be about the nutrients,” Taub-Dix says. Concerns about conventional food may originate from worries about pesticides. If this is the case, parents may be more comfortable minimizing their child’s pesticide exposure through buying organic.
If you want to know what’s most important to buy organic, a good place to start is the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which identifies the fruits and veggies that are most and least contaminated with pesticide residue. But when it comes to packaged snacks, an organic cookie or an organic bag of chips isn’t any healthier than its conventional counterparts. “Organic sugar is still sugar,” Muth says.
A GMO doesn’t automatically make a food unsafe
Foods boasting a non-GMO label have a similar appeal to consumers. About 41% of U.S. consumers take GMOs into consideration while shopping, and of these people, 85% say their avoidance of GMOs stem from health concerns.
For the most part, these health concerns appear to be unfounded. The scientific consensus is that GMO-produced foods are safe to eat, Moyer says.
“Sometimes names are scarier than you may really need to be,” Taub-Dix says. “Genetically modified food doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is less healthy or dangerous.” When a plant’s DNA is engineered in a way that doesn’t occur naturally, it’s genetically modified.
Foods with a non-GMO label means that it was made without genetically modified ingredients, or for meat and poultry, that the animal wasn’t fed genetically modified products.
“Parents seem to have some concerns that the science community doesn’t have,” Muth says. I don’t think a GMO is detrimental, but I respect that there are things we don’t know.”
If you are shopping for non-GMO products, there are a few things to keep in mind. Some foods may bear a ‘non-GMO’ label when there’s not a genetically modified counterpart, Moyer says. For example, orange juice made from oranges would always be non-GMO because genetically modified oranges simply don’t exist. In addition, some labels hold more meaning than others. ‘Non-GMO Project Verified,’ ‘Organic/USDA Organic,’ and ‘Demeter Biodynamic’ seals provide assurance that the non-GMO claim has been verified, while ‘GMO-free’ and ‘Natural’ do not.
‘Natural’ doesn’t mean much at all on food packages
While there are concrete guidelines defining what’s organic or genetically modified, what’s ‘natural’ is a little fuzzier.
“FDA considers natural to mean nothing artificial or synthetic in food. It’s vague and the policy was never intended to address food production, such as pesticides or food processing that consumers might expect when they see the word natural,” Moyer says. “The FDA has not considered whether natural should describe nutritional aspects or health benefits.”
From a nutrition perspective, ‘natural’ is essentially meaningless. “Salt is natural. Sugar is natural,” Taub-Dix says. “Your ‘natural’ product could be laden with more sugar or salt than you want your child to have.”
No matter how dubious the label may be, people — and parents — seek it out. ‘Natural, ‘All Natural’ and 100% Natural’ was the top claim consumers seek out, according to research from the International Food Information Council Foundation, and people are slightly more likely to look for a ‘natural’ label when they were purchasing for their families than if they were just shopping for themselves.
Companies are increasingly using other words in place of ‘natural,’ such as ‘wholesome’ and ‘simple,’ which carry no nutritional meaning. “There’s no regulated definition for ‘simple,’” Moyer says.
Another label of questionable value: ‘No high-fructose corn syrup.’ “This is really appealing to parents, but it doesn’t mean a product is free of other added sugars,” Moyer says. She cites an example of corn-syrup-free cookies that still pack a third of a day’s worth of added sugar.
‘Made with real fruit’ can also be deceiving. In small print you may see the word ‘flavor’ and that’s a clue there’s not any fruit in the product at all or that you’re getting more sugar than fruit concentrate, Moyer adds.
Beware of health halos
The problem with all of these front-of-package labels, whether they’re intentionally deceptive or not, is that they mask other unhealthy aspects of a product.
Products like fruit snacks or veggie chips can create a health halo — the perception that they’re healthier than they are based on an unfounded claim — that can ultimately lead parents away from snacks that are truly healthy, like real fruits and vegetables.
“Companies know what parents are looking for, so they toss in high value ingredients in to distract them,” Moyer says.
So instead of letting the front of a packaged product be your guide, you’re better off surveying the nutrition label on the back. Keep an eye on sodium and added sugars, in particular. About 90% of children eat too much sodium, which can lead to a number of chronic problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease. Kids between one and three years should have no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day, and kids between four and eight should limit sodium to 1,900 milligrams or less.
High sugar intake can increase the risk of prediabetes and cavities, plus it can be kind of addictive, Muth says. Children shouldn’t have more than 25 grams of sugar a day.
Beginning in 2020, consumers will get a little help decoding food labels when the FDA rolls out new nutrition labels that call out specifically how much added sugar is in a product. This will be especially helpful in making sense of labels of fruit- and dairy-based products, which contain natural sugars (fructose and lactose, respectively).
In the meantime, the ingredients list is a helpful guide. “An ingredients list is ordered by how much of an ingredient is in the product. If sugar is first or second on the list, that product is loaded with sugar,” Taub-Dix says. This list can also help you gauge how ‘wholesome’ or ‘simple’ a food is than simply relying on the product’s marketing. A long list and/or a lot of words you can’t pronounce generally indicates something’s more processed.
Of course, “many of the healthiest foods don’t have a label at all,” Muth points out, citing fruits, vegetables, and meat or fish you buy at a counter. Being a little savvier about what healthy food really means and taking a moment to look at the numbers and ingredients on the back of a package can go a long way to help you make nutritious choices for your family. “You shouldn’t have to be a dietitian to bring healthy food home,” Taub-Dix says.