How to read nutrition labels

Making the Most of Nutrition Facts Labels

New studies say many Americans are stumped by nutrition labels. How about you?

A NEW SURVEY reports that more than half of us check nutritional labeling on product packaging before we buy, and two out of five adults say they have changed their eating habits to more closely follow the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) My Pyramid nutrition recommendations. That's the good news.

But the Harris Interactive/Wall Street Journal survey also revealed that a surprising percentage of Americans--even well-educated people with good reading and math skills--don't know how to read and interpret the label data correctly.
The online survey involved almost 3,000 American adults, 95% of whom said they have at some point used products' nutritional labeling when making food decisions. The three most frequently cited reasons for consulting food labels were to follow a balanced, nutritious diet (39%), management of a medical condition such as diabetes or high cholesterol (23%) and weight loss (19%). Respondents listed their top three concerns as fat, calorie and sugar content.
But despite the fact that we're checking labels, a recent study indicates many Americans struggle with interpreting and applying that data on the side of the box. Researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center questioned 200 participants from a wide socioeconomic range, asking them to interpret food labels for nutrient content by the amount of food consumed. Another segment of the study asked participants to identify which foods had more or less of a certain nutrient.

Going into the study, most participants (89%) felt confident they understood nutritional labels and could use them to make healthy choices. But the study's results, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, showed otherwise. The study uncovered a significant gap in the general public's understanding of nutrition-label information. And while poor label comprehension did correlate with lower literacy and mathematic skills, even better-educated participants sometimes stumbled.

Only 37% of participants could correctly calculate the total grams of carbohydrates in a 20-ounce bottle of soda that contained 2-1/2 servings. And when given the nutrition data on a whole bagel, only 60% could figure how many grams of carbohydrates they would consume if they ate only half a bagel.

Many participants were confused by the complexity of the nutrition label, the researchers found, and were unable to find the facts they needed to answer researchers' questions. Some subjects confused the nutritional values given for the product they were eating with the recommended values for the whole clay, or mistakenly incorporated the percentage of the product's values as part of a 2,000-calorie recommended daily allowance (RDA).

One size doesn't fit all

To assist the nutrition label-reading public, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering a number of modifications, including changes to the way calories, trans fats and portion sizes--three key factors in healthy eating--are listed on product packaging. An FDA food-labeling seminar held earlier this year pondered possible changes in how calorie content and portion sizes are reported.

But don't expect to see those changes anytime soon, says Jeanne P. Goldberg, PhD, a registered dietician and director of Tufts' Graduate Program in Nutrition Communication. A number of factors--the complexity of the issue, the amount of research that will need to be done and the number of health organizations and food-industry representatives who will want to weigh in on the topic--mean that it could be a while before we see different labels in supermarkets.
Goldberg was a member of a US/Canadian committee, convened in 2004 by the US Institute of Medicine, charged with making recommendations for revamping the Daily Values, a prime component of nutrition labels' information.

It's true, Goldberg says, that the current nutrition label format, issued in 1992, is based on standards established in 1968. It's not that the standards are necessarily outdated, but rather how they were determined. These were based on "highest estimated needs" from a much larger set of standards, the Recommended Dietary Allowances, which take into account the effect of such factors as age and sex in estimating recommendations.

There are big differences, in needs for some nutrients related to age and gender. Iron is a good example. The current nutrition standard for iron--18 milligrams--is based on the 1968 determination of the needs of women in their childbearing years. Depending on who you actually are--a full-grown male or senior woman, for example--18 milligrams of iron may supply anywhere from 120-257% of your actual daily need. (See box on previous page.)

Looking beyond labels

How to fit all that on the panel of a cereal box or frozen lasagna? That's not really the point, Goldberg says. Consumers needn't wait for the ultimate nutritional label to start making healthier nutritional decisions, she maintains. "I feel we actually know more about how to eat right than we give ourselves credit for," Goldberg says. Instead of getting tripped up on percentages and RDAs, consumers should strive to build healthy eating habits by returning to "the basics," she explains. That means eating mostly basic foods and consuming fewer prepared foods--no math required.

You can leave your calculator at home if you "shop the perimeter" of the grocery store, Goldberg says. That's where the least-processed foods are shelved: produce, lean meat and poultry, seafood, dairy products. Moving into the inner aisles, yes, you can find good choices among some convenience foods, she says. In fact, convenience is crucial to many people as they try to choose healthier options. You should check the label to avoid high amounts of fat, calories and sodium, while seeking out packaged goods with higher fiber content.

Math may come in, of course, where healthy choices collide with high grocery prices. For example, fresh produce out of season can get frightfully expensive. Rather than cut back on vegetables, though, Goldberg advises consumers to buy frozen or canned when needed.

"There's nothing wrong with them. They are a perfectly good source of nutrition," she says, adding that consumers would do well to choose the plain frozen bagged broccoli over the package with high-fat cheddar cheese sauce.
Getting a handle on portion control is major component of learning to eat more healthfully, Goldberg notes. But that's a subject where consumers might need to pay closer attention.

"How many people know what two ounces of pasta looks like?" she asks. "The label tells you that two ounces is a portion. Is that a side dish." Is that if pasta is the main dish? I actually weigh my pasta before I cook it. It's the only way I can be sure to get a handle on it, and that's where consumers can make a big and positive change in their eating habits and the overall health of their diets."

TO LEARN MORE: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, November 2006; online at . USA Food and Nutrition Information Center . Institute of Medicine Dietary Reference Intakes .

Counting on Iron

Although the percentages on a Nutrition Facts label reflect a Daily Value of 18 milligrams of iron, for example, your actual daily need varies with age and gender. Here's what the Institute of Medicine most recently set in 2001 as Dietary Reference Intakes for iron per day:

Infants, 7-12 months-11 mg Children, 1-3 years-7 mg Children, 4-8-10 mg Males, 9-13-8 mg Males, 14-18-11 mg Males, 19 and up-8 mg Females, 9-13-8 mg Females, 14-18-15 mg Females, 19-50-18 mg Females, 51 and up-8 mg Pregnant women should get 27 milligrams daily and lactating women should get 9 milligrams (10 milligrams if age 14-18).

The Devil Made Us Ignore that Nutrition Label!

ONE PROBLEM WITH using nutrition information to wage war on obesity turns out to have less to do with the labels themselves than with compliance. So says a new study by market-research firm AC Nielsen that found, frankly, Americans don't always do what we know we should, nutrition-wise.

While 82% of American adults acknowledged their individual responsibility in weight gain, consumers nevertheless tended to eat the "wrong" things for weight loss and maintenance. And although 65% of respondents agreed that reducing junk-food consumption would help them with weight control, and 61% thought it sage advice to drink water rather than sugary soft drinks, few consumers in the study said they actually followed this advice.

Asked why they went ahead and bought products they knew-by reading those Nutrition Facts labels-would pack on the pounds, many respondents faulted the "modern convenience culture," saying lifestyle changes associated with weight control just seemed too inconvenient to follow.

Decoding Nutrition Labels

Serving Size: This is the place to start when looking at the Nutrition Facts label. It tells you a normal portion and how many servings are in the package. Compare this portion size to how much you actually consume.
Calories provide a measure of how much energy you get from a serving of this food. Many Americans consume more calories than they need without meeting recommended intakes for a number of nutrients. The calorie section of the label can help you manage your weight. As a general guide, 40 calories per serving is low, 100 calories is moderate, and 40 or more is high.

The nutrients listed first are the ones Americans generally eat in adequate amounts-or, more often, to excess. Eating too much saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol or sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, such as heart disease, some cancers or high blood pressure.

Note the asterisk after the heading "% Daily Value." It refers to the footnote in the lower part of the label, which tells you the percentages are based on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet.

Most Americans don't get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. Eating enough of these nutrients can improve your health and help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions.

The Percent Daily Value are based on the recommendations for key nutrients as calculated for a 2,000-calorie daily diet. Many people consume more calories in a day, and most don't even know how many calories they consume. But you can still use the percentages as a frame of reference, whether you consume more or fewer than 2,000 calories. (Source: US Food and Drug Administration)

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