A Moving Target – The Search for “Healthy” Food in America

A Moving Target – The Search for “Healthy” Food in America

As the debate rages on about which diets are best and how we should shop for food, there is one thing most Americans agree on – we all want to make healthier choices. However, a recent survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) reveals the universal quest for healthy choices is proving to seem more like a game of Where’s Waldo, as many consumers struggle to identify which foods and beverages can be deemed “healthy.”

According to the survey, conducted in October 2018 with over 1,000 American consumers ages 18-80, 95% of respondents reported they “always or sometimes” look for healthy options while grocery shopping. When asked how consumers evaluate the healthfulness of food, a majority of respondents reported first consulting the Nutrition Facts panel followed by checking the ingredient list and then searching for front-of-pack information, such as the AHA’s ‘Heart-Check’ mark and the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s (GMA) ‘Facts Up Front’ label. Further, as noted by NPR, some consumers rely more heavily on queues from environmentally minded and socially conscious icons, such as those that denote whether the animal-derived product is grass-fed. Despite fully evaluating the labeling on packaged foods, only 28% of Americans found it easy to identify and find healthy options, revealing a “gap between consumers’ desire to find information about healthy foods and their ability to do so.”

The disparity between consumer demand for healthier options and lack of consumer understanding of how to identify such foods and beverages highlights the importance of conducting consumer research prior to and in conjunction with modernizing labeling rules. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized the difficulty for consumers to identify healthy options.

As covered in a previous IFAC post, FDA introduced the updated Nutrition Facts label in 2016 to more clearly identify helpful nutrition and serving size information for consumers in the hope of encouraging more informed and healthful dietary choices. More recently in March of 2018, the FDA announced their Nutrition Innovation Strategy (NIS). Through this initiative, FDA intends to conduct a comprehensive review and update of current nutrition and food labeling regulations to make them more helpful to the average consumer. While the NIS is still in the early stages of development, the agency has outlined key strategies that will help to simplify healthy eating. A summary of these changes, which are intended to help Americans better identify, and therefore make healthier options, include the following:

Modernizing Claims

The FDA will work to define “healthy,” establish the criteria necessary to use this claim and consider developing an icon to help consumers better identify healthy choices.

Modernizing Ingredient Labels

As consumers demand more pared-down ingredient lists, the FDA is suggesting simpler names for select ingredients, such as using Vitamin C for “ascorbic acid.”

Modernizing Standards of Identity

While innovations within the food industry allow for enhanced products and more choices, unfamiliar products or ingredients may lead to consumer confusion. The FDA plans to set stricter standards for classifying certain standardized food products such as bread, jam, juices, and chocolate.

Implementing the Nutrition Facts Label and Menu Labeling

With the advent of the first major change to the Nutrition Facts label (NFL) in 20 years, FDA plans to support the adoption of the new (NFL) label and menu-labeling requirements, along with a campaign geared towards consumers to understand how to use the new NFL.

Reducing Sodium

As excess sodium has been found to lead to high blood pressure, the Agency is continuing its efforts to reduce sodium intake, a public health action meant to greatly prevent the rate of heart attack and stroke.

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