Commentary

Getting Real About Your Food Labels

If a marketing genius were to come up with a food that was fat-free, sugar-free, salt-free, gluten-free, organic and incredibly good for you, I ask nutritionist Bonnie Taub-Dix, what would it taste like?

"Sounds like water," she replies. "Maybe a cup of herbal tea, if you're lucky."

The author of Read It Before You Eat It: How to Decode Food Labels and Make the Healthiest Choice Every Time is very concerned about how we eat. But she's a self-described "realist" about how to convince people to make better choices, not an "idealist." Nor is the advisor to Campbell Soup Co. an ideologue at war with the food industry.

"There's a tendency for people to make black-and-white statements about food," she says. "Don't eat processed foods. You know what? Most of the foods that people in this country are eating are processed."

Sure, in an ideal world, we might be willing to support small-scale local farmers who are able to grow anything we want, from kiwis to kale, year-round in pesticide-free fields and greenhouses. Kids would scarf up spinach with the abandon they munch chips.

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Ain't gonna happen anytime soon.

And so, the challenge becomes one of educating consumers and convincing them to make incremental changes. "What matters is 'what are you eating now and what are you going to do about it to make it better?'" she says.

The government's new Dietary Guidelines, for example, calls for nearly half of the population to cut its sodium intake to fewer than 1,500 milligrams a day. Most of that intake is not from the salt shaker on our table but rather from the processed foods we love for their convenience. If you make the task seem too onerous, consumers will give up before they start. Instead of eliciting an "Oh, my gosh, I can't do it," Taub-Dix says, you want them to say, "Okay, maybe I've got to start looking at how much salt I'm eating."

The same psychology applies to the world of manufacturers, who also live in an idealistic dream world of their own where, for example, a 160-calorie "serving size" of roasted and salted peanuts is one ounce. Try eating one ounce of salted peanuts. Or how about that slice of pound cake that's listed as having only 300 calories. Look closely and you'll see that there are two serving sizes.

"How many construction workers wind up sharing that cake with a friend?" asks Taub-Dix.

Expecting manufacturers to totally eliminate the not-so-good-for-you ingredients that give their products the tastes we crave is no more realistic than expecting most overweight carnivores to go raw and run barefoot marathons. (But if you are thinking of either, I recommend the books at the end of those links.)

So Taub-Dix applauds the incremental changes announced by Wal-Mart in its Healthy Food Initiative, and commends First Lady Michelle Obama for putting the ball in play. But manufacturers now need to "step up to the plate."

One way to do that is by making your labels realistic and honest. Start by eliminating some of those meaningless words that promise more than they can deliver.

"'Natural' is the most popular word on our globe that is used on food packages but it actually has no definition by our government," Taub-Dix points out. And even organic, which is regulated, can be tricky.

"I've got a bag of organic lollipops here. So what if it says organic. Organic candy is organic candy."

What's more important is the food's profile. Is it healthy for you?

Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with candy, or even sugary soda, says Taub-Dix the realist, but "some foods need to be 'sometimes' foods," she says. And as more and more consumers become aware that these foods need to be occasional treats, not staples of their diet, smart marketing will reflect that.

Taub-Dix also advises harried consumers to look for foods that "multitask." Take the almond, for instance. It provides more calcium, protein and vitamins than most snacks and can be incorporated into breakfast, lunch or dinner. In the same vein, marketers might look to incorporating multitasking ingredients into their products rather than throwing an ambiguous label like "Now With Sea Salt!" on a package, as if that means something truly nutritious.

Manufacturers should be making products where "the packaging on the front isn't prettier than the food inside," Taub-Dix says. She is watching the "Nutrition Keys" front-of-packing labeling initiative announced by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute a few months ago with interest. On the one hand, it may alert people who've never looked at a label as to what's inside the package. On the other, it's just part of the story.

"I don't have a problem with it. I just don't want people to think that it's a substitute for the fact panel on the back. It's an assistant, not a substitute."

The front, in other words, may be ideal but the back is where reality lies. And the message remains the same: Read it before you eat it.

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