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Food Label Updates Only Make Sense if Consumers Pay Attention

The recent announcement by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of its plans to redesign Nutrition Facts labels on food packages has been widely welcomed by health experts who see it as an important step in the fight against obesity and other diet-related diseases. It would be the first revision in 20 years, and some say an update is long overdue considering both advances in nutrition science and shifts in consumer behavior.

Consumer advocates have often lamented that the way food manufacturers convey nutritional data is confusing, leaving people less, not more, empowered to make informed choices.

“Unless you had a thesaurus, a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition, you were out of luck. So you felt defeated and you just went back to buying the same stuff,” said the First Lady, Michelle Obama, at a White House event where she revealed the proposed changes. “As parents and as consumers, we have a right to understand what’s in the food we’re feeding our families,” she added.

For this, the new panels will emphasize the most important data consumers should know about, including easily identifiable serving sizes, calories, total fat, sugar, sodium, and calories from fat. Especially serving sizes are too often calculated in seemingly arbitrary ways and can be hard to decipher. A more intuitive approach would help.

But the question remains whether and how people will make use of the information they’re given. According to a survey by the NPD Group, a research agency, less than half of American food shoppers check labels regularly. 48 percent say they read labels to determine whether food items have ingredients they try to cut back on or avoid altogether – down from the nearly 65 percent in 1990 when the current labels were first introduced.

The decline leaves room for interpretation. We could see the changes as a success in educating the public, said Harry Balzer, the NPD Group’s chief industry analyst. “After all, how many times do you need to look at the Nutrition Facts label on your favorite cereal, or your favorite juice, and any other food you routinely consume,” he asked.

Perhaps, but it could also be that people are fed up with too many, and oftentimes contradictory, messages about what and what not to eat. They know that some of their favorites may not be the healthiest, but they find it exhausting to keep their guard up at all times. It is also unclear from the report whether demographic shifts play a role in the trends.

The new labels, if they become law, don’t satisfy all demands health advocates have made over the years. For example, consumers would greatly benefit if they knew not only which nutrients they should limit – like saturated fat, sodium, added sugar, etc. – but also which ones they are at risk of not getting enough – such as calcium, fiber, vitamin D, etc., said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies at the Whole Grains Council (WGC), in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA.

Also, with its current proposal, the FDA has apparently shied away from a bolder approach of placing some key data on the front of food packages, as Australia and several European countries have done. In addition to panels, some use visual rating systems like stars, traffic light colors or numerical scales.

Still, the updates could not only help consumers but also give food manufacturers incentives to improve the quality of their products, according to David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner who was responsible for implementing the original labeling mandate in 1990. “No one wants their product to look bad on labels,” he said.

Hopefully, we wont have to wait another 20 years to make further progress.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).