Labeling Trends: Is Your Food Healthy Or Does It Just Look Like It?

Labeling Trends: Is Your Food Healthy Or Does It Just Look Like It?

By Kory Waschick

Going to a store and finding items that are healthy for you can be confusing and a bit overwhelming. With so much choice and little time to shop, are consumers putting what they think is healthy into their shopping carts? Natural, organic, sugar free, excellent source of, naturally raised, multi grain — we see these labels on packages everywhere. But what do all of these terms mean?

Natural. Containing no artificial flavors, colors, or chemical preservatives. A term  regulated only for meats and poultry, nothing else. But, it’s on everything — and “natural” doesn’t always equal “healthy.” It’s overused and doesn’t hold much weight, yet when we see it on a package we automatically think that it’s good for us.

USDA Organic. Any multi-ingredient product bearing this seal must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. Does it mean it’s healthier? Not necessarily. Studies show that there are no more real health benefits in buying organic versus non-organic. It’s more of a personal preference than anything about the concern of how your food is grown or your interest to have cleaner ingredients in processed products.

Non- or -free. Products must have less than the following per serving: fat (0.5 gram), sugar (0.5 gram), cholesterol (2mg), or sodium (5mg). Look at the nutritional facts — the serving size might be a fraction of what you think. If you use more than the recommended serving, what you think you’re cutting out may be something you are adding back in. Also, if something is sugar free, it’s likely that other ingredients get added back in to make up the loss of sugar, like more fat or sodium.

High, Rich In, Excellent Source Of. All designate products with at least 20% of the recommended daily amount per serving. These are also terms that are overused. Again, look at the nutrition facts and the ingredient listing on the back. If the product lists the item you are expecting to be any of the above, it should be listed as one of the first three ingredients.

Certified Humane. A label for products made by non-profit organizations dedicated to humane treatment of animals. To use the label, animals must have been given no growth hormones or antibiotics, or lived in cages, crates, or stalls — and must have had “access to sufficient, clean, and nutritious feed and water.”

Naturally raised. A recent USDA standard for animals raised without growth hormones or anitbiotics. You’ll see this on meat and egg packages. What that doesn’t tell you is the animal could still be eating feed that’s been genetically modified and ridden with chemicals. That still goes inside their body, which in turn, you ingest.

Multi Grain, Whole Grain. Whole grains include grains like wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt, rye — when these foods are eaten in their "whole" form. On the package, look for the Whole Grain Stamp or “whole grain” listed in the ingredient statement. But be skeptical if you see the words “multi grain” or just “wheat” without more details, such as “crackers made with multi grain.” The product may contain only miniscule amounts.

Let’s look at a few package examples.

Healthy Choice Frozen Meal

Notice the green? The leaves? The typeface chosen for the words 100% natural? Healthy Choice has done a great job of capturing the consumer, not only with their name but their design. This product seems good, doesn’t it? The 100% natural statement is followed by “no preservatives” which is true. On the back of this box they say the meals are less processed, simply giving you real, wholesome ingredients that are void of artificial flavors, colors and preservatives, also true.

Here’s the real health benefit — the ingredient statement has 9 grain pasta listed first. They were very careful to not put “whole grains” on their package as a claim, but rather, you actually see those 9 grains listed: wheat, barley, rye, oats, amaranth, quinoa, millet, sorghum and teff.

Kashi Crackers

Heart to Heart captures your attention — sounds healthy, looks healthy. The package is clean and simple, and it sports that buzz phrase, “whole grains.” If you turn the box to the side, your proof is there. The Whole Grain Stamp appears at the bottom, indicating how many grams of whole grains per serving there are. The fat and sodium content are really healthy amounts too. Kudos Kashi.

Newtons Minis

There’s a lovely illustration of figs on the front, making the product look wholesome and earthy. They claim the product is baked with 100% whole grain. When you look to the side with the nutritional info, there is no Whole Grain Stamp. What this is telling us is that the product may only have trace amounts. Will you get your grains? Only some. What you’ll get more of in this product is sugar, which is listed as the second, third and fourth ingredients.

As a graphic designer, I am always drawn to a good looking package. As consumers, we may buy because of aesthetic, price or the claims the article just covered. No matter the reason, always look at the nutrition facts and the ingredient statement to get the real story on the product you are about to purchase.