A woman checks the nutrition label on a can of baked beans at the grocery storeShare on Pinterest
Experts say nutrition labels on food packaging help consumers make healthier choices. d3sign/Getty Images
  • Federal officials are considering requiring companies to put nutrition labels on the front of food packaging.
  • Experts say this change will help consumers make healthier choices as long as the information isn’t confusing.
  • They say the addition of nutrition information on restaurant menus has been helpful, although calories shouldn’t be the only data listed.

Choosing packaged foods that fit into a healthier lifestyle could become easier sooner rather than later.

The Food and Drug Administration is researching the potential benefits of having a star rating system or traffic light rating system on the front of food packages instead of on the back.

White House officials released a 44-page report that was presented at their recent Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.

They said having these health indicators on the front of packages may help people make healthier food choices more easily and more quickly than ever.

They said this could be particularly impactful for communities with lower levels of nutrition literacy.

Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, is an inclusive plant-based registered dietitian and nutritionist who tells Healthline she thinks front-labeling would make a big difference in raising awareness about nutritional information in packaged foods.

“This label would summarize important nutritional information in a meaningful way for grocery shoppers and encourage them to take a few seconds to compare nutritional information between products,” she said.

Amy Reed, MS, RD, CSP, LD, is a pediatric dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She agrees the new labeling system would be helpful.

“The recommendation to use a recognized symbol to indicate the health of a product will lead to improved accessibility of those with low health literacy,” she says.

Lon Ben-Asher, MS, RD, LD/N, a nutritionist at Pritikin Longevity Center in Florida, told Healthline putting the nutritional labels on the front of the package is a step in the right direction.

“Currently, food manufacturers can market and include a lot of information on the front of the package in order to attract the attention of the consumer. However, there is not much, if any, recourse for false advertisement and the majority of any legal responsibility remains on the back of the package,” he said.

“Placing the nutritional labels on the front of the package will provide more transparency to the consumer and help prevent manufacturers from duping the public,” Ben-Asher added.

Amy Bragagnini, MS, RD, CSO, an oncology nutrition specialist at Mercy Health Lacks Cancer Center in Michigan and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says adding nutritional info to the front of food packages is one more way to make consumers more informed of the products they are purchasing.

“Busy people usually try to get in and out of the grocery store in a timely manner. If nutrition labels are easily accessible on the front of products, they may have an easier time comparing products without having to stop and turn items around,” Bragagnini told Healthline.

Take yogurt, for example.

“I would encourage my patients to choose a yogurt that has a relatively low amount of added sugar. Because there are so many brands/types of yogurt, it could take a significant amount of time to cross-compare products. Front labels would make that work a lot easier for the consumer,” said Bragagnini.

“But in the end, consumers need to understand the sheer basics about nutrition before they can make informed decisions about the food they are buying,” she added.

“I would encourage people to seek out counsel from a registered dietitian to best help inform folks about what aspects of the nutrition label may be of highest interest to them,” Bragagnini suggested.

However, there are some issues with nutrition labels on the front of packaging.

“Some concerns about the front of package labels are that there are so many factors in determining the health of a food,” noted Reed. “Also, what is healthy for one individual may not be healthy for another.”

For example, a child under 2 years of age is encouraged to have more healthy sources of fat for brain development, but an adult is encouraged to have fewer sources of fat in their diet, Reed said.

Yes and no, say experts.

Reed says including calorie information on restaurant menus may lead to individuals being more aware of what they are eating, but calories are not the only determinant of the health of a food.

“When calories are all that is listed, it does not provide inclusive information on the food and leads us to label food to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on one criteria,” she said. “There are other things to consider such as fiber content, calcium content, fat content, protein content, etc.”

Gorin says she believes menu labels have indeed helped people.

“We don’t know what we don’t know. And at restaurants, you only have so much information at your fingertips — and much of this takes effort to access, such as digging through ingredient information on a restaurant’s website. When the calories are placed front and center on a menu, this makes it much easier for diners to make health-conscious decisions,” she said.

Bragagnini is torn on the subject.

“For some people, having the nutrition information listed next to their favorite menu items can be helpful. Seeing the nutrition fact breakdown could help them decide on what dish would best suit their overall nutrition goals.,” she said.

“For others, having the nutrition information listed could be both confusing and maddening,” Bragagnini added. “Many people don’t want to consider the caloric impact of their favorite menu items and want to simply enjoy the opportunity to eat out.”

Bragagnini says consuming one meal out at a restaurant won’t drastically change your overall health.

“I educate my patients that finding balance with nutrition is the key. I urge them to make informed and well-rounded food choices during the majority of the week,” she says.

“And I also encourage them to occasionally enjoy their favorite dishes without shame or guilt. In my opinion, that is balanced eating,” she added.

Ben-Asher notes that overall there’s a lot more public policy work to be done. Calories alone do not necessarily equate to healthy choices, he says.

“However, listing pertinent nutritional information and calories can help consumers be more mindful about their choices and lead to better, healthier decisions,” he said.