Dear Food Doc: I have become vigilant about reading food labels, especially calorie and fat content. Is it just me or is there now a lot more information on food labels than ever before? It can be very confusing.

Dear Reader: Consider that from the beginning of time into the 20th century, transactions between food sellers and buyers relied on trust. Trust that the product was safe, wholesome and had the expected weight or volume.

When foods first began to be mass-produced in cans, bottles and other packages, food labels became necessary. They stated the bare minimum -- name, quantity and manufacturer. No ingredients, no regulations.

Several widely publicized reports about adulteration led to calls for the government to take action. Eventually, in the 1930s, food manufacturers were required to at least list ingredients. But that was it. Nutritional content wasn’t on the radar.

By the 1970s, many Americans were gaining weight, and public health authorities became concerned about our eating habits. If only consumers knew, thought the experts, just how much fat was in those cookies or how many calories were in that can of pop, they would make smarter choices. Thus, nutritional labeling was born.

Initially, some food companies were not wild about nutritional labeling. They regarded labeling as a burden, due in part to the costs associated with nutritional analyses for each product. There was also concern that labels might actually have their intended effect and dissuade consumers from purchasing their products.

Still, when first introduced, nutrition labeling was mostly voluntary. It was not until 1990 that nutritional labeling became a requirement. For the first time ever, consumers could see the vitamin, mineral and fiber content of processed foods. They could also tell how much fat, salt and calories were in their favorite products.

Fast forward 25 years. Food labels now provide much more than nutritional information. There is the USDA organic seal, the whole grain logo, and ethical labels claiming fair trade practices.

In addition, food marketers have learned that so-called “front-of-package” messaging can be an effective and inexpensive way to sell food products. This is one reason why consumers are easily confused.

Fat-free, caffeine-free, low salt -- these are obvious and informative. But what does “inspired by artisan bakers” mean on a package of crackers? Or “antioxidant” apple juice, or “natural artesian” water. Perhaps “made with real chocolate” makes sense for ice cream, but there it is on cereal boxes!

Perhaps the most common front-of-package labels are those that boldly declare the absence of particular ingredients. No trans fat! No cholesterol! No GMOs!

Although there is nothing untruthful about these declarations, they can sometimes border on deceptive. Trans fats, for example, have nearly disappeared in foods ever since the FDA decided not to recognize them as safe.

“No cholesterol” was actually one of the first “no” labels. Cholesterol, however, is only present in animal products, so the no cholesterol claim for vegetable oil or peanut butter is meaningless.

According to food psychologists, the absence of these ingredients confers a halo effect. Thus, if made without trans fat or cholesterol, those sugar-laden cupcakes might be viewed by consumers as healthy.

Then there is the case of Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs. Despite broad consensus from nearly every major scientific and medical organization attesting to their safety, the “no GMOs” or “non-GMO” tags are in nearly every aisle. This label is also applied on hundreds of products for which GMO versions do not even exist.

For example, “no GMOs” labels are often stamped on packages of flour, canned tomatoes, peanut butter, orange juice and ready-to-eat lettuce. This, despite the fact that there is no FDA-approved wheat, tomatoes, peanuts, oranges or lettuce in the marketplace.

The gluten-free trend is right behind. Gluten is a protein found only in grains, mainly wheat, barley, and rye. Some people have reactions to gluten and avoid it in foods. So gluten-free cookies, bread, and crackers makes sense. But does attaching gluten-free labels on everything from almonds to raisins help consumers make informed choices?

Perhaps it will soon be necessary to have a degree in food science just to navigate food labels. But “mineral water made with natural carbonation added” is even confusing to me!

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Bob Hutkins is the Food Doc. He is a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches and conducts research in food science and food microbiology. Send your questions on any topic related to food, food safety, food ingredients and food processing to the Food Doc at features@journalstar.com.


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