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The Association of Retail and Consumer Professionals


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 In the evolving landscape of nutrition and food science, the role of registered dietitians and health professionals has never been more crucial. As guardians of dietary wisdom, you are instrumental in guiding the public through the complex maze of food choices, nutritional content and health implications. A significant tool in this endeavor is the food label — a seemingly simple piece of information that carries profound implications for health and well-being. The accuracy and comprehensibility of food labels are not just a matter of regulatory compliance; they are essential components in fostering an informed and health-conscious society. 

On Feb. 27, France issued a ban on using terms like steak and ham for plant proteins products. In May 2024, France is to ban the use of 21 meat names to describe protein-based products and to limit the amount of plant content in products that use certain other terms like bacon and chorizo. This follows a lengthy and highly emotional battle fought by dairy farmers here in the U.S. over the use of the word “milk” on plant-based beverages including soy milk, almond milk, rice milk and coconut milk. The Food and Drug Administration in February 2023 issued a draft guidance that allowed plant-based beverages to use the word milk in its name as long as the package includes a voluntary nutrient statement that communicates how the product is nutritionally different from animal milk, adding to consumer confusion. 

As plant-based foods become more popular and more innovative, we will see more regulations and confusion by our shoppers, which is why it is critical for retail dietitians and all health professionals to take the lead on clarifying what is and what is not true on our food packages to both consumers and within their organizations. Too often, buyers and category managers rely on the brands’ information offered by their sales or brokers’ teams without verifying the accuracy with their internal expertise from dietitians and nutritionists. 

The importance of accuracy 

The accuracy of food labels is paramount for several reasons. Firstly, it ensures consumer trust. When consumers feel confident that what’s stated on the label accurately reflects what’s in the product, trust in the food industry and regulatory bodies is maintained. This trust is foundational in guiding consumers toward healthier food choices and reinforces the retailer/shopper relationship. 

Secondly, accurate food labels are critical for consumers with specific dietary needs and restrictions. For those with food allergies, intolerances or chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, precise nutritional information can be a matter of life and death. According to FARE, the Food Allergy Research & Education organization, there are over 33 million Americans with food allergies, which affects over 100 million family members’ dietary choices. Incorrect or misleading labels can lead to serious health consequences for these consumers. 

Accurate food labeling supports public health initiatives aimed at combating nutritional deficiencies and chronic diseases. With the rise of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, providing clear and correct nutritional information is key in empowering consumers to make choices that align with healthy dietary patterns. 

Clarity and comprehensibility 

While accuracy is non-negotiable, the effectiveness of a food label also hinges on its clarity and ease of understanding. A label that is technically accurate but buried in jargon or presented in an inaccessible manner does little to aid the average consumer, which is why labeling plant-based beverages as milk is so controversial — especially since the FDA does have a standard of identity for the term, which clearly states it’s derived from an animal. 

Clear labeling involves the use of straightforward language and an easily understandable format. Nutritional values should be presented so consumers can quickly assess the content of key nutrients, such as fats, sugars, sodium and fiber. This is particularly important in an era where time is a luxury and quick decisions are the norm in grocery aisles. 

The role of dietitians and health professionals 

Registered dietitians play a critical role in the discourse around food labeling. As experts in nutrition, you are uniquely positioned to advocate for labels that are both accurate and user-friendly. Dietitians can contribute to this effort in several ways: 

Education and advocacy: Dietitians can educate consumers on how to read and interpret food labels, empowering them to make informed dietary choices. This education can take place in one-on-one consultations, workshops or through public health campaigns. 

Policy influence: Through professional associations and advocacy groups, dietitians can influence food labeling policies. By providing expert insights, they can advocate for regulations that ensure label accuracy and comprehensibility. 

Industry collaboration: Dietitians should collaborate internally with category managers, buyers and externally with food manufacturers to improve the clarity and accuracy of labels — especially on information posted on the retailer’s ecommerce platforms. Your expertise can help bridge the gap between regulatory requirements and consumer understanding. 

Research: Engaging in research to understand consumer behavior and perceptions around food labels can provide valuable insights into how labels can be designed to better meet the needs of diverse populations. 

Challenges and future directions: Despite the clear benefits of accurate and understandable food labels, challenges remain. The food industry today is focused on rapid innovation, especially in the fields of plant-based, cellular agriculture and analog foods leading to an ever-increasing array of products with complex ingredients and nutritional profiles. Keeping labels up-to-date and ensuring they reflect the latest nutritional science can be daunting. 

There is a delicate balance between providing comprehensive information and avoiding information overload, which can overwhelm and confuse our shoppers. Finding the right amount of information to convey, in a manner that is both comprehensive and digestible, is an ongoing challenge. 

Looking ahead technology offers promising avenues to enhance food labeling. Digital shelf labels and the upcoming GS-1 QR codes can provide access to a wealth of information beyond what can be physically printed on a package. These technologies can offer personalized information, taking into account the individual’s health status, dietary preferences and nutritional needs. 

Accurate and understandable food labels are not just regulatory requirements; they are essential tools in promoting public health and empowering consumers to make informed dietary choices. Registered dietitians and other health professionals, with your deep understanding of nutrition and its impact on health, are at the forefront of advocating for and ensuring that food labels meet the highest standards of accuracy and clarity. 

Embracing innovation and technology will be key in making food labels even more accessible and informative for all if they are 100% accurate and easy to understand. 

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