Healthy or natural? Decoding food labels


WASHINGTON — Many foods boast that they are “healthy” or “natural.” But what do those terms really mean?

Lean Plate Club ™ blogger Sally Squires says the Food and Drug Administration has not yet technically defined what “natural” means. However, the FDA has been allowing products that don’t contain artificial flavors, colors or synthetic substances to carry the term.

She said that regulators are considering coming up with an official definition soon after petitions were filed asking the agency to re-examine the use of the word and to define it.

On the other hand, the term “healthy” has a definition. But the FDA is being asked to revisit that term too to make sure it’s consistent with federal dietary guidelines.

Squires said the makers of the KIND bars are appealing after the FDA issued a warning saying its snack bars are misbranded because the company uses the word “healthy” on the label. At issue are the health benefits of nuts and chocolate versus the amount of saturated fat and calories that accompany them.

Meantime, Squires said there is no universal definition in the United States or globally for whole grain foods. A group of researchers has called upon the scientific community to determine what the term should mean. Whole grains are linked to lower body weight and might help prevent type 2 diabetes.

Squires said that any updates to these terms could help consumers to better understand the food they are eating. But those are not the only changes coming.

In 2018, the nutrition facts panel on most purchased foods will be different. Among the changes to that iconic panel are that added sugars will be detailed for the first time. In addition, vitamins A and C will no longer be required, however, vitamin D and potassium will now be listed.

“The other thing changing is that serving sizes will reflect what people are actually eat … rather than what the package might contain,” Squires explained. “A serving size of ice cream will now be a cup instead of one-half cup and 12 ounces of soda will be the standing serving size instead of 8 ounces,” she said.

Although the changes for nutritional information are set, the process for labeling of genetically modified food still has a ways to go.

“Congress passed the first GMO labeling law earlier this year and government regulators have two years to write the standards for it,” Squires said.

It will provide a database for consumers to determine if a product contains food that was grown using the GMO farming method. However, Squires said critics are frustrated that the products themselves will not be labeled.

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