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Healthy Food Product Labels: How Healthy Are Their Claims?

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Healthy Food Product Labels: How Healthy Are Their Claims?

Increasingly health-conscious consumers have spurred a revolution in product labeling, but who decides what terms like "low fat" and "natural" mean on food product labels? The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration regulate the use of some terms, but not others. AllNaturalFood giant General Mills is facing a lawsuit from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit private watchdog group, over the company's claims that their processed fruit snacks are healthy foods. While specific phrases on the packages are accurate -- the snacks are indeed low in calories, fortified with vitamin C and gluten-free -- the CSPI contends that these statements don't accurately reflect the nature of the pre-packaged snacks. Compared to a piece of fruit with its low sugar, high fiber and rich supply of vitamins, processed fruit sheets fall short, the group claims. General Mills may be disguising the less healthy aspects of their fruit snacks behind prominent displays of their virtues, but they aren't making things up. Yet this kind of fudging may become a thing of the past as food product labels come under closer FDA scrutiny. While all fats were once lumped together on the label, the administration now requires manufacturers to break those fat grams into percentages of total fat, trans fat and saturated fat. Any fat labeled "partially hydrogenated" is a trans fat, a processed oil that underwent chemical alteration to turn it into a shelf-stable, solid fat. A similar push is underway to separate total sugar content into high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose and other sugars. News about the dangers of trans fats and their propensity to increase "bad" LDL cholesterol levels has turned consumers against foods high in the processed oils. These synthetically derived fats may make up only a fraction of the calories in a food, but as some health experts warn against consuming even small amounts of trans fats. Because of these requirements, manufacturers and restaurants now have nowhere to hide their trans fats, so they’re actually eliminating it—McDonald’s French fries have been trans-fat-free since 2008—a win for consumers’ health. This doesn't mean that foods proclaiming their fats 100 percent natural are necessarily wholesome options. "Natural" draws shoppers' attention, but it is actually empty of meaning. The FDA doesn't regulate the term "natural" on food product labels (other than those for meats and poultry), so companies are free to use the term as they wish. They may freely apply it to foods that bear little resemblance to the wholesome-looking fruits and vegetables depicted on the package. Manufacturers choose the claims they want to make on food product labels. They want to showcase the food in its most flattering light. These aren't lies, but they're only partial truths. The truth about any food isn't on the front of the box, but in the nutritional information and the ingredient list on the back. By law, companies must disclose the truth about fat grams, overall sugar content and calories per serving there. No matter how large phrases like "all-natural," "low in fat" and "made with real fruit" appear on the front of the package, the small print in the nutrition facts panel tells the full story.