While shopping for groceries lately, you may have noticed something different about the packages in your cart. You may have even thought twice before putting something in. Why is that?
It might be because new labeling initiatives by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food industry trade groups, and major retailers such as Walmart are literally changing the “face” of food and making us more “label-conscious” about what we consume.
Meat and Poultry Labels
Beginning March 1, 2012, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service began enforcing a new rule which requires packages of ground or chopped meat (such as hamburger and ground turkey) to display nutrition facts panels on their labels.
Panels must list the number of calories and grams of total fat and saturated fat in the product. In addition, products that include the term “lean” (i.e. 85% lean) but are not actually low-fat must also list the fat percentage.
Forty other popular raw meat and poultry products (steaks, pork chops, chicken breasts, etc.) are also required to disclose nutritional information based on the average nutritional value for the cut, either on their labels or on a store display. The goal is to make it easier for customers to comparison-shop for leaner cuts that fit into their health and dietary plans.
When reviewing the new meat labels, you might notice that a cut contains some trans-fats. The majority of trans-fats in our diet come from polyunsaturated fats that have been partially hydrogenated. But, trans-fats occur in meat from ruminant animals (beef, lamb) and accounts for some 2-5% of the total fat. No need to worry about this naturally occurring trans-fat which is different than the man-made version.
Prior to this, only meats and poultry with added ingredients such as marinades and stuffing were required to have nutritional labels. If you have questions regarding the new labels or other food safety issues, you can “Ask Karen” a virtual representative on the FDAs website or via smart phone at m.askkaren.gov.
“Facts Up Front”
Two food industry groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, have also implemented a $50 million campaign marketing their labeling program, “Facts Up Front,” which is now found on many popular food products. Note, this was a preemptive move to undercut a federal initiative.
Easy-to-read labels on front of packages include the mandatory per serving amounts of:
- Saturated fat and the percentage of daily value
- Sodium and the percentage of daily value
- Total sugars
Labels may also include 2 additional pieces of information, typically related to the product’s other beneficial nutrients. However, packages with little space, such as beverages, may only indicate the number of calories in the product.
Walmart’s “Great For You”
And as the largest food seller in the U.S., with more than half its annual sales from food products, Walmart is likewise keeping abreast of the trend. The world’s largest discount retail chain has launched “Great For You,” its U.S. labeling campaign, and it aims at helping shoppers make better decisions when it comes to choosing healthy, low-cost foods.
Healthier products from their Market-side and Great Value brands will be marked “Great For You,” making it easier for consumers to choose those items instead of nearby items that do not carry the icon.
“Great For You” stamped foods must meet criteria that conform to standards outlined by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Food and Drug Administration, USDA, and Institute of Medicine. Products must have less than 35% of total calories from fat, 0g of labeled trans-fat, no partially hydrogenated fats or oils, and be lower in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.
The program is a response to customer requests “to make healthier food choices easy, while keeping prices low.” It aims to increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fiber-rich whole grains, low-fat dairy (1% fat or less), and nuts and seeds.
To maximize the number of “Great For You” options, Walmart has begun reformulating popular products, starting with reducing sodium in cuts of beef and in canned vegetables.
The Bottom Line
It’s commendable that food producers and retailers are making an effort to guide consumers toward healthier food options. The simple, easy-to-read labeling systems provide basic information consumers can use to make better and healthier food choices.
However, the problem is that many consumers don’t read labels or pay close attention. And, manufacturers haven’t made it easy to figure out exactly what’s in a package. For example, a “single serve” juice bottle may contain 110 calories per serving, but the container actually contains 2 servings so total calories are north of 220.
A “Facts Up Front” label might show that an item has 8g of saturated fat, but how do we know if that’s an acceptable amount? And when we see that a product has 600mg of sodium, an acceptable amount for “Great For You” prepared meal items, how much salt is that, really? Can you convert that into teaspoons?
The U.K. designed a program to address these issues by using color coding in its Traffic Light system where red means high, amber means medium and green means low. You can bet dollars to doughnuts that the food lobbyists will do everything in their power to prevent this type of system passing in the U.S.
Of course the foods that are really health promoting – fresh fruits and vegetables, and other whole foods – don’t have labels, so healthy shopping is more than just looking for labels and logos.
The new labels are a good first effort by the food industry, but they lack standardization and allow producers and retailers to present nutritional information under their terms and in measures that might not be familiar to us.
In order to make truly healthy choices, we need to be more vigilant about reading the labels and understanding what the numbers on the labels mean. It’s a step forward, but ultimate responsibility for our health and choices falls upon us.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.