How Food Transparency Is Helping You Make Healthier Food Choices

Some Food Brands Are Providing Helpful Facts About Food

Panera Beverage Station
Panera provides sugar information at its beverage station. Panera

Do you know what's in your food? Do you pay attention to food labels and nutrition guides when you buy food at the grocery store or order food in a restaurant? Increasingly, consumers are demanding to know where their food comes from, how it is made, and what ingredients are inside. As a result, food transparency is becoming the hottest trend in the food industry.

What Is Food Transparency?

Transparent food labeling means providing information that goes beyond the Nutrition Facts label.

While the nutrition label provides important information to help you make healthy food choices, there is a strong push by consumers to require more information on food package labels and in restaurants.

Of course, just because a package provides transparent labeling doesn't mean that the food is necessarily healthy. But according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, when companies are required to list unhealthy ingredients, they tend to put less of those ingredients in their products.

There are different ways that you might benefit from food transparency. These are some of the claims you might see on food labels and menu boards that can help you make more informed decisions about what to eat:

  • Clean eating. Consumers are increasingly looking for ingredients that are not only recognizable but also trusted. For that reason, many companies are removing ingredients such as artificial preservatives, artificial sweeteners, and artificial colors from their products.
  • Clear labeling. If you're like many shoppers, you not only want to know exactly what's in your food but you want the information readily available. You don't have the time to research ingredients online or read tiny text on food packages, so restaurants and food producers are putting important information up front on menu boards or in larger text on food packages.
  • Humane and healthy farming practices. Shoppers like to see that ethical practices were used to produce our food. For example, at your local grocery store, you might look for free-range or pasture-raised eggs that were provided by farmers who allow their chickens to walk free and engage in other natural behaviors outdoors. Many healthy shoppers also look for No Antibiotics Ever (NAE) or Raised Without Antibiotics labels on foods like dairy products and chicken.
  • Sustainable sourcing. Many farmers use sustainable practices that help protect the environment. Sustainable agriculture also helps to promote improved public health and animal welfare.
  • Minimal processing. Health experts recommend that we limit the consumption of empty calories and processed foods. So consumers are trying to avoid foods with ingredients like refined grains and trans fat and are instead choosing foods made with whole ingredients.

Who's Providing Food Transparency? 

There are many companies that are leading the way when it comes to providing accessible, transparent information about the food they sell. Panera Bread and KIND are two examples.

Panera Bread

This restaurant company has been on the leading edge of the food transparency movement for many years.

In early 2017, the company announced that it had cleaned up its menu and removed all artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners, and colors from artificial sources. But Panera's Sara Burnett explains that the initiative didn't go far enough.

Burnett, Panera's Director of Wellness and Food Policy, says that the company was able to reach their goals with the clean food initiative, but they still struggled at the soda fountain. “We had great food paired with beverages that weren't always healthy. We wanted to create a beverage bar with plenty of options, just like the food menu.

So, Panera began rolling out an expanded beverage bar with a new line of craft beverages and signage to help customers make informed decisions about what to drink.

Beverages like Passion Papaya Green Tea or Prickly Pear Hibiscus Fresca provide different levels of sweetness, so customers can choose how much sugar they want to consume.

Signs prominently posted at the station provide details about the amount of added sugar in each drink. Burnett says that the program is more about providing choices than about telling the customer what to drink. "We provide real options and information that is meaningful and helpful for the customer, but at the same time it is a subtle cue.”

Soft drinks and water are also provided alongside the new drinks. Burnett says that Panera has led the way on several issues and she hopes that full transparency at the beverage bar becomes the new standard in the restaurant industry.

KIND

If you're looking for a snack bar or treat that is made from whole, pronounceable, and recognizable ingredients, consider one of the treats made by KIND. In 2016, KIND became the first snack company to publish the added sugar content of its products so that consumers could see exactly how much sugar and added sugar was in each snack. The decision came two years before the FDA required providing the information.

In addition, the company makes several promises to consumers about the ingredients they use. The first and predominant ingredient in KIND snacks is always a nutrient-dense food like nuts, whole grains, or fruit. In addition, the company does not use high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, or added sugar alcohols. 

Lastly, KIND has a strong commitment to the community. In 2017, Daniel Lubetzky, the Founder and CEO of KIND, formed Feed the Truth, an independent organization dedicated to promoting transparency in the food industry. The group will develop programs to limit the food industry’s influence in shaping nutrition policy and to restrict the industry's ability to spread misinformation or biased science that may be detrimental to public health.

Transparent Food Labels, Healthier Food Choices

Transparent labeling doesn't make a packaged food or menu item healthy, but knowledge is power. Charlie Arnot, CEO of The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), is optimistic about the food transparency trend.

"We’re excited to see that many companies in the U.S. have made dramatic shifts when it comes to transparency, which our trust research shows is no longer optional. Consumers expect it and deserve to know how their food is produced, who’s producing it and what’s in it."

Arnot says that food companies including The Hershey Company and Campbell Soup Company are also trend leaders.

The Hershey Company has partnered with the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association to lead the on-package SmartLabel™ initiative, which gives shoppers instant access to information on thousands of products. Hershey also launched its Simple Ingredients campaign, committing to using simple ingredients that you’d find in your kitchen, like milk, sugar, and cocoa, when possible.

And according to Arnot, Campbell Soup Company has also set the bar high by sharing what goes into its food and where ingredients are sourced through the What’s In My Food? campaign. Consumers can access a wide range of information about Campbell's products, and have questions and concerns addressed in one easily accessible place.

A Word From Verywell

As a consumer, you'll find that having important and relevant information at your finger tips will make it easier for you to find the products that are best for your health. And as the transparency trend grows, it is likely that our choices at the grocery store and in restaurants will become increasingly healthy and nutritious.

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