Teaching Kids Media Literacy & Label Lingo


June 24, 2015 Update Adding “7 Food Labels Shoppers Should Ignore Because They are Meaningless” which is perhaps the most specific, descriptive, summation header I’ve seen in awhile.

Also, take a peek at this petition to get the FDA to get real about their food additive approval process, and this one asking Congress not to allow vested interests to add riders that gut the Dietary Guidelines with watered down pablum. In short, caveat emptor on all food industry fandangos, especially involving label literacy and health claims.

Feb. 19, 2014 Update Nice reminder in this health literacy tweet from Alexandra Black, R.D: “What does “all natural” mean on a food label? Jack squat.” Check out the conflict of interest with “sponsored tweets” at the food and nutrition influencer conference. Egad.

Meanwhile, on the media literacy contradictions front, Stop Corporate Abuse is asking Olympic athletes to end junk food sponsorships like McDonalds, you can take action here to lend a hand.

Original post: Label Lingo: As I prepped my media literacy session for 8th graders to be in Unger Educational Media’s new film, “The Math & Reading of What We’re Eating: An Experiment with Food Labels” I decided extruding simple data from FDA food labeling is more challenging than scraping glitter glue off a favorite outfit.

Shaping Youth uses media literacy as a counter-marketing tool all the time, so I have no problem ‘targeting my market’ to gear the film session toward the brands and products that are flying in the faces of these kids. But wow, food labels are dicey.

Most of us aren’t even sure what they MEAN. FDA standards are ever-changing: Lean and Low Sodium have recently been updated, Low Fat, Reduced Fat, Less Fat, Fat Free, Light are all quantifiable regulatory claims…

So which packaging terms are legit and which ones are bogus?

It’s dizzying in complexity. No wonder CSPI calls food labeling the Tower of Babel. CSPI recently filed for an FDA labeling overhaul requesting ONE set of universal standards. Yay. It’s gonzo training kids how to spot the spin of advertisers when product claims, nutrient boasts, screaming headlines and self-awarded nutrition seals inextricably enmesh.

Shaping Youth sends kids home with interactive mindfulness like PBS’ “Don’t buy it” for hands-on fun…But frankly, as a parent, I’m TIRED of food packaging games.

We’re forced to do our homework with each trip down the grocery aisle squinting at portion distortion loopholes and trying to figure out what is and isn’t healthy for kids.

Advertising is a huge part of the problem, compounded by blurry regulatory guidelines.What’s ‘real’ and what’s ‘hype’? Here’s an article I wrote for kids to take home to their parents…A cheat sheet of sorts, until things get clearer…

Shaping Youth: An Inside Look at Product Packaging

by Amy Jussel

sy_avatar_ningFrom shelf positioning and end-cap displays to ‘why to buy’ snipes, color choices, romance copy and product sell, Shaping Youth counter-markets the impact of media and merchandising by revealing the tricks of the trade from within the industry.

Kids lap this up, because they want to be in the know…And we eagerly want to give them these life skills to be media savvy consumers. We reveal how “shelf talkers, tent cards, ring-neckers, point of purchase take-ones, tie-ins, and promos” influence the path to the checkout stand.

We walk kids through product launches, from name generation and logo development to package design and sales displays…but when it comes to food itself, it’s getting harder and harder to feed kids just the facts.

Untangling conflicting messages is an artform, as FDA terminology butts heads with promotional hype and consumers are confused in the chaos.

The Food and Drug Administration has stringent guidelines for listing specific nutrient information, verbally as well as graphically. (8 pt. ‘Helvetica Regular’ typestyle, 4 points of leading, 10 pt. bullets; more minutiae than you care to cope with.) And yet…

Product packaging is all over the board touting claims that mean nothing unless viewed in full and proper context.

A truthful label like “no cholesterol” paired with a product that is high in total fat and saturated fatty acids is misleading and borders on deception.

“High in antioxidants!” “Low in carbohydrates!” “No cholesterol!” “Multi-grain!”

Meaningful or meaningless?

How can we tell what is & isn’t regulated?

How can we tell what is mandated within FDA sanctioned terminology?

As the infamous saying goes, “It depends on what the definition of is, is.”

Labeling rules exist for nutrient claims like reduced-fat and low-calorie, but the FDA has yet to come up with a legal definition for low-carb, reduced-carb, or carb-free.

Actually, it’s illegal for manufacturers to put any of those terms on food labels.

Companies get around this with implied low-carb claims such as ”carb options, carb smart, carb aware, carb sense and net carbs.”

There are tons of blatant examples where nutrient statements are true, but skewed totally out of context.

My personal ‘spot the spin’ favorite is the huge FULL page ad in boldface type shouting “Zero Transfats!” alongside a monster bag of Lay’s potato chips.

Blinking in amazement, you can read on to find they have the audacity to tout this as “great news” and even suggest we now pick up a few extra bags for the football season.

Yes, folks, let’s eat more of these high calorie, sodium laden gems in copious quantities, or perhaps toss in a ‘Smart Choices’ healthier chip positioning for an aligned brand while we’re at it? argh.

Point is, “Zero transfat” clearly does not convey the whole picture. What about the total fat content? The cholesterol? The sodium? Sigh.

What exactly DOES the FDA regulate?

Food labeling is required for most prepared foods, such as breads, cereals, canned and frozen foods, snacks, desserts, drinks, etc.

Nutrition labeling is voluntary for raw produce (fruits and vegetables) and fish. The FDA refers to these products as “conventional” foods.

Then there’s the wild west frontier of dietary supplements that fall under the general umbrella of foods, but which have separate labeling requirements. This is the category where all those countless energy bars & “sports” marketing products live.

Dietary supplements include ingredients like “extracts, concentrates, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars, and metabolites.

They can be found in various forms ranging from softgels to liquids or powders, or ‘boosts’ at the smoothie counter.

Unregulated “energy drinks” fall into the ‘functional claims’ and ‘dietary supplements’ categories with manufacturers blitzing kids to the tune of $3.4 billion a year.

31% of U.S. teens now say they drink these jolt-n-crash concoctions, and they’re rolling out new ‘energy’ beverages to the tune of about one new drink a day.

Right now, this is my hot spot, as they’re marketing ‘wellness’ to kids in epic proportion with misleading claims on sports drinks, caffeine charged energy drinks and sugary vitamin waters.

Take a peek at this jumble of FDA label claims…

There’s even a “preliminary evidence health claim” allowable as long as the label qualifies it with an FDA disclaimer like, ‘this evidence is not conclusive.”

Huh? say what? Caveat emptor folks…that’s a big warning sign.

Fact is, certain product claims require rigorous approval and certain ones don’t require any approval at all.

None whatsoever. Nada. Bupkiss.

Many of these are euphemisms that fall under the ‘structure/function’ claims like “optimizes bone health” or “helps promote urinary tract health” or “maintains healthy lung function.”

As a non-scientific rule of thumb, here’s my cheat sheet for discerning fact and fiction in the grocery shopping aisle:

· If the claim is wordy, awkward, long & cumbersome, you can bet the feds were involved.

· Ditto if there’s a disclaimer of any kind. (the stronger the disclaimer, the more the FDA is distancing itself…be wary of dietary supplements particularly!)

· If the food product has any ‘disease’ reference (naming cancer, stroke, or the heart for example) you can bet your bippy they MUST pass some serious scientific hurdles based on solid evidence.

·Huge Exception: foundation logos teamed with products in monetary partnerships, sponsorships, or alliances…

Be wary of ‘heart healthy’ alignments linked with artery cloggers and sugary cereals with diabetes foundations. (It’s all very weird to me how numb consumers are to the whole concept of buying into this!)

·Beware of words like “supports, enhances, maintains, suppresses” which often do not fall under the FDA’s stringent guidelines for those that promise to “prevent, treat, cure, mitigate, or diagnose” a disease.

·Safe bets: Quantifiable words regulated by FDA standards: ‘Free, No, Without, Zero’ also ‘Low, Few, Little’ also ‘Lean/Extra Lean’ and product claims “high in” or “good source of”

·Watch Words: “Part of…”(a balanced diet, a healthy breakfast, whatever…) “The taste of real…” (automatically tells you it’s not real!)

By very nature, product ‘descriptors’ are designed to ‘sell’ not to ‘educate.’ The back of the box does the education, and reading it is fundamental.

Kids and parents need to read the ORDER of ingredients in the product and analyze the data on the back, or you’re an easy mark for the behemoths of Madison Avenue who hope to snag you with a bright-n-bold burst on the front, heralding the latest nutritional buzzword d’jour.

Here are some common food claims & descriptors found on the CyberChefs Electronic Union website.

It’s the quickest snapshot I could find to distill the ‘Tower of Babel’ on the FDA site into a set of standards I could transfer onto a poster board for kids.

When you see products marked with these prefix words:

“Free, no, without, or zero” they translate into these FDA standards for compliance:

Sugar=Less than 5 cal/serving

Sodium=Less than 5 mg/serving

Total Fat=Less than 0.5mg/serving

Cholesterol=Less than 2 mg/serving

That’s info we can use, but no one has it. We have to wade through the clutter to make heads or tails of what we’re putting in the wee ones by being dilligent about navigating the advertising crud that flummoxes all of us into oblivion.

One standard. One icon. One meaning. One system…I like an FDA overhaul idea.

No one’s trying to take away choices, just give us a symbol with meaning so we can all be on the same page.

Then advertisers can snipe, flag, write clever headlines and persuade to a farethewell, but we as parents would have a labeling system we could use.

Right now I have to read the ‘mice type’ on the back of every product to analyze the loopholes from serving size portion distortion to ingredients at a macro and micro level.

Media literacy won’t help kids if parents can’t advocate for them by making healthy choices…

…And they can’t make healthy choices if it’s all buried in the spin.



  1. Hi- I recently bought some Capri-Sun that claims to not have any HFCS in it. I am really second guessing it. I don’t let my kids drink anything with hfcs if I can help it. Are you saying that they are misleading us on their label but actually do have hfcs in it? Please let me know, because i bought them at Cosco and i have a lot.


  2. Hi Cheryl, their new “25% less sugar than other leading juice drinks” is being touted, along w/having no HFCS/artificial sweeteners…so clearly they’ve brought the new product to market, post lawsuit on the ‘natural/HFCS’ issue as well as the latest shift toward healthier fare. Truth is, each Capri Sun at the time I wrote this contained the equiv. of 5 tsp. of sugar in HFCS form, so now they’ve got several variations, including some being promoted as 100% fruit juice.

    Always, always, read the label…here’s their site to determine which of their offerings you bought at Costco. (they have multiple variations now)


  3. Also, here are some other resources that rate/react to HFCS in products…


    FDA comments on HFCS/industry opposition:

    And, in fairness to Kraft Foods, makers of Capri Sun, etc. they’ve been getting KUDOS lately for revealing more label info than most, particularly pertaining to allergens and ingredient lists for those with celiac disease and other gluten issues…so we all have to ‘keep up’ with the innovation and praise and applaud those who are making changes to their corporate policy, and their products and goods to benefit public health! 🙂

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