So-called front-of-pack (FOP) labels are adorning an increasing number of food packages. Developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (Facts Up Front), Whole Grains Council (Whole Grain Stamp), American Heart Association (Heart-Check Mark), and many other organizations and companies, they display the number of calories and amounts of select nutrients in a food, or they use various symbols, logos, or scores to rate the food’s nutritional qualities. But don't assume that products with such labels are better for you. Rather, they may just be a marketing gimmick, according to a study in Appetite, which looked at more than 10,000 foods.
Nearly 18 percent of the foods evaluated had FOP labeling, but they were not uniformly lower in calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar than their label-less counterparts; in some cases they were higher in nutrients that should be limited in a healthy diet. Thus, as the researchers wrote, "when grocery shoppers are comparing similar products, choosing the product with FOP symbol marketing is no guarantee of a selection consistent with a diet that reduces chronic disease risk." Foods with FOP labels may be lower in calories and sugar, for example, but higher in sodium and saturated fat.
The problem is that there are numerous FOP labels but no standardized guidelines. The FDA has issued warning letters to 17 food companies for making false or misleading FOP statements, but efforts by the agency to develop its own labeling system seem to have stalled. According to its website, the FDA will “soon” propose guidance to the food industry regarding FOP labels and will work collaboratively "to design and implement innovative approaches" that will "help consumers choose healthy diets."
Bottom line: Until the FDA takes further action, be aware that FOP labels can have a "halo effect," whereby consumers believe that the labeled products are healthful in all respects. Don't go only by what you see on the front of the package. For more complete information, read the full Nutrition Facts panel and ingredients list.