How One Small Change to Packaged Foods Could Make Healthy Eating Easier

Photo: Getty Images/andresr
Health-minded grocery shoppers have long known that if you want to know the true nutritional value of any kind of packaged food, you have to look at the back of the box. The front may proclaim in a bold, colorful font that something is gluten-free, "natural," or features a buzzy ingredient du jour like matcha or MCT oil. But the nutrition panel on the back (or in some cases, on the side) is where you'll find the full truth about what's in a product.

An industry group, called Facts Up Front, wants to change the food labeling process to make things more transparent. Their goal: to move key nutrition information (like saturated fat, sodium, and sugar content per serving) to the front of a product's packaging so people can easily know at a glance what's going on with their food. Some brands have already adopted these practices, with more on the way. And new research suggests that this move could result in healthier food products in the long-term.

Experts In This Article

In a study published this month in Journal of Marketing, researchers analyzed 16 years of data taking into account over 21,000 products that adapted the "front of packaging" (FOP) label, aka putting the nutrition facts and ingredients on the front, not the back. Then, they compared them with similar products where the info was on the back. They found brands adopting FOP labels "leads to an improvement in the nutritional quality of other products in that category," the study reads.

Basically, by some brands being more up-front about what was in their products, other brands felt the need to improve what was in theirs. "Across all of the food categories in which at least some products adopted the FOP labels, there was a 12.5 percent reduction in calories; 12.97 percent reduction in saturated fat; 12.62 percent reduction in sugar; and 3.74 percent reduction in sodium," a press release about the study reads.

Registered dietitian Melissa Rifkin, RD, says if more products adopted this practice, it would directly benefit consumers—as long as they know how to read a nutrition panel. "Having the nutrition label on the front really depends on if the consumer understands what they're reading," she says. "For someone who understands, it would be incredibly helpful, pushing consumers to choose better ingredients."

Watch the video below to learn exactly how to read a nutrition panel:

Rifkin says it's first important to know what your nutritional goals are (like how much fiber or protein to aim for). Once you have that baseline knowledge, FOP labels can be beneficial—and save you from having to dodge the marketing on the front and turn the product over to find what you're really looking for. "I do think this this would lead to healthier choices and improved overall nutrition status should the consumer understand what they're looking at," she says. For example, if someone is trying to eat more fiber and an FOP label shows them that a certain product in question is very low in fiber, they know right off the bat that they might want to choose a different product.

She also says she isn't surprised by what the researchers found: brands tweaking their formulas to include more nutrient-rich ingredients, which they can then showcase on a front of packaging label. "I think brands will be forced to improve ingredients and perhaps optimize product to boost consumer likeness," she says.

Of course to Rifkin's main point, the big takeaway is to know how to read a nutrition label—regardless of where it's placed on a product. That's the fail proof way to make up your own mind about what you want to buy and not just fall for whatever is screaming at you in big bold letters.

Not all food purchases are made with nutrition in mind and that's fine—sometimes you want a pint of ice cream and don't really care how much sugar is in it. But when you do want to buy something nutrient-rich, you want to make sure you're shelling out for something that's actually worth it. And FOP labeling could make that easier, and hold brands accountable at the same time.

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