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Are warning labels on unhealthy foods the answer?

If you saw a warning label on an unhealthy product you were about to toss in your grocery cart, would you put it back on the shelf? Apparently that's the only way to get some customers to make a healthier choice.

In a new University of Alberta study, researchers asked 364 random grocery shoppers to choose between high-fat and healthier snacks. Some of the high-fat snacks carried a label that warned of high-fat content, noting that the item would be taxed because of it. Other high-fat snacks were taxed without the label. Although some groups avoided unhealthy snacks regardless of labeling or taxation, those who had the highest body weight were deterred only by the warning labels.

On one hand, this is good news for natural products retailers. It means that shoppers are making decisions based on health rather than price.

On the other hand, these hypothetical "fat labels" are deceiving. For example, nuts are high in fat—but the healthy kind. And what about avocados? Should we slap a high-fat warning label on those orbs of unsaturated fat?

You see where I'm going with this.

Far from a stretch, other similar product labels are real and gaining popularity. Take whole-grain labels. Sales for Whole Grains Council-certified products rose 13.3 percent in 2010, according to Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm SPINS. At a glance, this seems like something to applaud, but before you clap your hands, let's look at the fine print.

Products adorned with the Whole Grain Stamp have at least 8 grams of whole grains. Good deal.

But not all grains in the product are necessarily whole. And the product could conceivably still have plenty of added sugar, artificial colors and preservatives and other baddies. For example, Honey Nut Cheerios come with the Whole Grain Stamp, but the ingredients listed after whole grain oats are sugar, modified corn starch, honey and brown sugar syrup. Bad deal.

I'm not necessarily against the Whole Grains Council labels—or any like-minded product label for that matter. But I'm afraid that many customers looking for an easy way to choose healthy foods won't realize that there could be far more to the story.


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