If you're trying to eat better but are confounded by the healthy logos, symbols and claims that food manufacturers put on packaging, help may be on the way. Or you may be more baffled than ever.
In an attempt to help consumers sort through confusing and sometimes misleading labels, grocery stores are rolling out individual food rating systems. At least five new programs designed to single out healthy foods are in use across the country or are expected to launch in the next few months.
Nutrition iQ, which debuts this year at Supervalu-owned grocery chains across the country, uses a color-coded system to highlight nutritional content.
But though all promise to help shoppers make healthier decisions on the fly, critics say the new tools make it even harder to make better choices.
Already, most labels are crowded with a nutrition facts box and an ingredient list. Consumers may also see the American Heart Association's heart check mark, which is printed on more than 800 products rich in fiber or whole grains. Kraft, PepsiCo, Kellogg's, General Mills and Unilever all use their own healthy choice icons.
Shoppers often also find questionable health claims on labels, such as the boast that a sugar-laden chocolate cereal can "help support your child's immunity" with antioxidants.
"The situation has gotten completely out of hand," said New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, who believes label health claims are another way of marketing junk food. "It's not helpful for consumers, there are multiple methods [of evaluating food], and it's frighteningly confusing."
But manufacturers and grocery stores know consumers are drawn to health claims, particularly if they appear independent. A study in Appetite, a peer-reviewed nutritional journal, found that consumers are more likely to trust nutrition symbols that are endorsed by third parties such as health organizations, and the simpler the symbol or icon, the better.
However, the involvement of industry is "a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, who led the development of the NuVal system.
Katz maintains that NuVal is the most comprehensive program. "It's not a product of anyone or anything in the food industry," he said. "Food manufacturers have no direct influence over us."
Ultimately, consumers should keep in mind that if a food has a label, it is often a processed product that is less likely to be a healthy choice.
In fact, when strict nutritional standards are applied, the vast majority of supermarket food doesn't make the cut under most of the programs.
"The real question is, Is better junk food a good choice?" Nestle asked. Buying "healthier" potato chips, she said, "will delude you into thinking that you're doing something for your health when the best thing is to not eat them at all."