08/18/2014 10:34 am ET Updated Oct 18, 2014

The Worst Thing Since White Bread

Scientific American recently ran a story called "White Bread May Actually Build Strong Bodies One Way." While this may be true -- I don't know enough about Lactobacillus to comment -- the story highlights a problem that's more harmful than a slice of white bread ever was: stories that perpetuate consumer confusion around healthy eating.

While most Americans think about eating healthy and want to make improvements, more than half say that figuring out their income taxes is easier than knowing what they should and shouldn't eat, according to the International Food Information Council.

Research on antioxidants, omega-3s and acai berries, that often drive food trends, as David Sax suggests in his new book Tastemakers, is part of the problem. But a major source of confusion comes from the industry's food packaging in general.

When a Hershey's Cookies 'n' Cream cereal box promotes "100 percent whole grains" and a can of 7UP claims "antioxidants," how is a consumer to know what is actually good for them? "The general public believes that if a health claim is on the label the government backs that up," says public health advocate Marion Nestle. "This sells food products, no question. Consumers have to understand that the purpose of these claims is to get them to buy the product."

As we attempt to tackle our nation's health problems from every angle, what if we embraced this reality and changed the conversation: if food packaging is so effective at selling products, could we use it to sell health?

With attention simultaneously strong around sustainability, a cousin to public health efforts, could we broaden our definition of sustainable to encompass health? Packaging that could offer more than just its contents would effectively extend its life beyond a singular purpose. Some companies, like Haagen-Dazs, are already creatively experimenting with "engagement packaging," albeit with a different intent. If health-promoting packaging is done effectively, this could be as laudable as a package's recyclability or compostability.

Unlike public education campaigns, food products get into the hands and households of nearly everyone providing a consummate reach to promote health education in an impactful way. Is it possible for honest packaging to help consumers understand the importance of fiber (since the average American consumes only about 60 percent of their daily need), for example, or to provoke healthy actions like standing up (at a time when experts say sitting as the new smoking)?

Imagine if food companies began using more of their packaging to sell health rather than just sell products so that a consumer will be able to sensibly digest the benefits of antioxidants in soda or processed white bread, without needing a scientific understanding of Lactobacillus. If we're serious about solving our nation's health problems, let's try putting our health promotion where our mouths are.