This cacophony of heady health claims is food manufacturers’ way of elbowing ahead of competitors. There is always the push for foods to be different than what is already available. Companies know consumers want healthy options and are willing to pay for them. Today, individuals are increasingly interested in adding good things to food as opposed to removing bad things. So it’s not surprising that the average number of ‘benefits’ listed on the most successful new foods and beverages has increased almost 50 percent over the last decade.


Health (or the appearance of health) sells. Sixty-six percent of consumers at least occasionally buy food because of a specific healthy ingredient. In addition, lower calorie products drove 82% of sales growth from 2006-2011. Companies may be tumbling toward a questionable extreme. But there is more to the story: Just the overall impression that you’re eating a healthy product—be that because of a litany of health claims on the package or just a healthy-looking design—strongly influence how you perceive the food and how much of it you eat. Surprisingly, it’s not the uninformed consumer who succumbs to healthy-sounding or healthy-looking products. The people who are most influenced are the people who care about food being organic, or pesticide-free, or free-range, or fat-free, or non-GMO. In other words: all of us.


Food packaging has a long history, but it wasn’t until 1994 that companies were forced to present standardized nutrition and health information on practically all food packages. The Nutrition Facts panel was added and statements like “low-sodium,” “high-fiber,” “reduced fat” were regulated. Additionally, the term “healthy” could only be used if a food met certain requirements (such as low fat, low saturated fat, low sodium, and low cholesterol) and contained at least 10 percent of your daily value for certain nutrients. With the recent proliferation of claims on packages, though, we’ve seen the emergence of claims that may not provide the full picture of products’ full nutritional value.


A quick jaunt through the grocery stores reveals packages that boast plenty of health-related claims, some taking advantage of loose regulations. This isn’t surprising when studies have shown that consumers can’t tell the difference between rigorous health claims and flimsier so-called structure/function claims. In addition, consumers prefer lighter, more sexy-sounding claims because they sound more positive. The newest initiative is front-of-package labeling. It aims to create some kind of standardized system that can be placed on all products to give the consumer a sense of how one product compares nutritionally to another product. But “healthy” was defined solely by consortium, and after it started appearing on foods, experts started questioning how nutritious some of the “healthy” foods were. It was later shown that 64% of the “healthy” foods did not meet standardized criteria for a healthy food. Additional initiatives also proved to be unsatisfactory in educating consumers about the true health advantages of foods available.


As a society, we’re becoming more and more conscious of obesity and poor diet, and companies are going to capitalize on this by doing more marketing around health. The problem is that they won’t necessarily be marketing healthy food; they’ll be touting the health attributes of unhealthy products. Food companies frame their product with its package. They control how we think about the food inside, whether we expect it to be healthy or not, how tasty we think it will be, how much we eat in a sitting, and even how hungry it will make us. And packages are very alluring.


Perhaps, then, we are better off eating foods that don’t need labels. If you do eat a labeled food (and let’s be honest, we all do), buyer beware: the marketed “better-for-you” version isn’t always healthier. In fact, indulging (moderately) in the “regular” version might just be the best choice. And always focus on the perimeter, or outer aisles of the grocery store, where the healthier foods are placed.


It may be unrealistic to think of a world where food doesn’t exist in packages, but there are places with fewer packages: community co-ops, farmers’ markets, and the produce section. Eat food you can label yourself!

Rachael Moeller Gorman