The purpose of Eat Better Food is to introduce you to the people, ideas and companies making our food better. Sometimes that means sharing resources, too, like this book.
I wholeheartedly believe that when it comes to packaged foods, to Eat Better Food we need to be savvy label readers, which includes being simultaneously proficient in:
- identifying and understanding ingredients within the ingredients statements
- being able to accurately calculate the data shared on Nutrition Facts Panels
- knowing what all the other claims, symbols and statements on packaging mean, and whether these are regulated or unregulated terms
To be quite honest, #1 is not something you can learn in a day. There is a learning curve and time commitment to being an educated ingredients reader. To become proficient, I highly recommend meeting with a registered dietitian who can teach and guide you.
Thankfully, Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com is helping us with #2 and #3. Her book, Read It Before You Eat It - Taking You From Label to Table, is a practical and easy-to-use resource for learning how to read food package labels and making smart decisions in every aisle of the supermarket.
Bonnie is an esteemed nutrition expert and colleague of mine. I asked her the following questions about why food labeling literacy is so important and what the most pressing issues have and continue to be so that you can get a very quick glimpse into what the book covers.
EBF: Why did you pick the topic of labeling for your book?
BTD: I was asked to write this book and I’ll admit that at first I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the subject. But then I realized that there were no other books like this: Read It Before You Eat It not only explains every item on the nutrition label, but it also gives you tips on how to shop if you have health issues like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or food allergies and intolerances, like gluten sensitivity and lactose intolerance. My book also highlights tricky terms that confuse consumers instead of helping them, and provides a detailed aisle-by-aisle tour of how to shop for the healthiest foods in the store.
EBF: What were the most pressing labeling issues for consumers when you published the first edition back in 2010?
BTD: Food labels at that time (and still now for the most part) were not differentiating between natural and added sugars. Natural sugars are those that are inherent within the food such as the sugars in milk, yogurt and fruit. Added sugars are those added by the manufacturer [for sweetness and to contribute other culinary attributes]. Although this feature was supposed to appear on all Nutrition Facts Panels by 2018, that deadline was extended to 2020. The good news is that many companies have already adopted some of the required changes and are separating out natural from added sugars on their labels.
Another area of confusion is portion sizes. So many products have unrealistic portion sizes listed. For example, one-half of a muffin or one-quarter of a bag of microwave popcorn are not portions that people commonly eat! Most people just look at the calories per serving size without checking the number of servings per container and so they don’t realize that they may need to double, triple or perhaps even quadruple the numbers listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel.
EBF: What are the most pressing labeling issues today?
BTD: Even with the proposed changes in store for the new label people are still confused about how to interpret what the numbers mean. “What determines whether calories are too high or too low?” “If a food has fat, is it bad for me?” “How do I know if the carbs are healthy types?” These questions probably have more to do with an understanding of basic nutrition principles than labeling issues, but it’s important that consumers get used to reading the ingredient list, too. Until the new sugar labeling guidelines (as described above) are on all labels, people need to comb through the ingredient list to identify the aliases for sugar such as high fructose corn syrup, organic cane juice, dextrose, and so on.
Words shared on front of pack such as “natural,” “local,” and “sustainable” are magnets for consumers and may make the products seem healthier than they really are. Organic lollipops, for example, are made mostly from sugar in one form or another, but the word organic gives the product a health halo. Consumers need to be encouraged to look beyond the hype on the front of the box or bag and flip the product over to see what’s really inside by looking at the Nutrition Facts Panel and the Ingredients list.
EBF: What’s the most important message you want to share with consumers so they can be savvy food label readers and make smarter food purchasing decisions?
BTD: Most of us spend more time choosing what goes on our bodies (clothes and shoes) than what goes in them (food)! Shopping for food doesn’t have to take hours or be overwhelming and that’s why I wrote my book...to provide hands-on tips so that you can develop a shopping list that saves you time, money and even calories (if you’re watching your weight). Try focusing on the items on the label that speak most to you — learning about what’s really in your food could help fuel you with delicious food throughout your lifetime while taking into consideration your budget, preferences and state of health.
EBF: Is there a current labeling issue that if addressed will alleviate consumer confusion?
BTD: Although terms like “natural,” “local,” and “sustainable” still have yet to be defined (and are currently left up to the manufacturer to define), consumers are simultaneously smitten and confused by them.
What is most confusing to you when it comes to reading food labels? Please share your comments below. Don't be shy--if you are confused by something, others have the same question, too. Plus, I'd like to address these confusing topics in future Eat Better Food blog posts.