Looking At The Labels

December 04, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi

Look at a typical food label. Let's say the product has 554 milligrams of sodium. How much more sodium should you consume today for a healthy diet? Is a product with 5 grams of fat unhealthy? And what about fiber?

If you are confused, you aren't alone. Everyone -- from dietitians to the surgeon general -- has been telling us to eat a diet low in fat and cholesterol and high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. But with the current nearly 20-year-old labeling format, knowing what to eat takes nothing less than a calculator and a degree in nutrition.

Last year the Nutrition Education and Labeling Act required the Food and Drug Administration to issue regulations to change the label so consumers can easily comprehend the nutritional information and understand how it fits into their daily diets. Since then, while FDA has been testing consumer reaction to several different label formats, a "good foods vs. bad foods" battle has been brewing behind the scenes.

On one side, a food industry trade group says it opposes any format that could lead shoppers to reject a product because the label emphasizes that it's high in fat (a so-called "bad" food) or to pick one because the label says it's low in sodium (a "good" food).

On the other side, a consumer group says shoppers need to know which foods are good and bad so that they know what to eat more of and what to avoid or minimize in their diets.

"The label cannot be Nutrition 101," says Regina Hildwine, a food industry analyst for the National Association of Food Processors. "Consumers cannot learn the whole drill about good nutrition just by looking at the food labels. Nor can they learn how to fit a specific food into the diet just by looking at the label.

"The worst thing that can happen is if a format is chosen that leads consumers to the conclusion that any specific food is bad or a panacea."

But Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the good food/bad food argument infuriates her because no one -- from reporters to dietitians -- questions what it really means. A diet is bad, she says, because it contains bad foods. "The industry is trying hard to shelter junk foods," she says. "They don't want consumers to know the foods are loaded with fat or salt and they are pressuring FDA to keep these things as hidden as possible. It's a smoke screen the food industry uses to protect unhealthy foods."

Last year, FDA researchers tested five label formats on nearly 1,500 consumers in Pine Bluff, Ark.; Tampa, Fla.; Jackson, Miss.; Council Bluffs, Iowa; suburban Chicago; Rochester, N.Y.; Eureka, Calif.; and Buena Park, Calif.

Consumers were given two label formats for two brands of similar products and were asked how they differed in nutrition, according to Alan Levy, head of the consumer research staff in FDA's Division of Consumer Studies. Then they were asked questions like: If you are using this product, what nutrients should you try to get more of in your diet?

"We found a surprising discrepancy," Mr. Levy says. "The labels that were the easiest for them to use were the ones they disliked the most and the ones they had a harder time using were the ones they liked the most. We hope to reconcile this with the second study. Hopefully they will find some formats they both like and are easy to use."

The favorite was the "adjective label" -- a good food/bad food format that lists the amount of each nutrient with descriptors such as "low," "medium" and "high." The nutrients are then compared with the suggested Daily Value for a 2,350 calorie a day diet -- a diet that is supposed to represent the average person. But although the consumers considered the adjective format the most helpful, they understood either the current format or the current format with a Daily Reference Value section much better.

From the food industry's point of view, the adjective format is the worst of those tested.

"It definitely leads to a good food/bad food conclusion," says Ms. Hildwine of the food processors' group. "It's confusing. What does medium carbohydrate mean? What does medium protein mean? What is medium fat? What does this all mean in the light of a total diet? What if the food is high in fat, cholesterol, fiber

and protein? How do you evaluate that food? If a food is high in fat and high in cholesterol that doesn't necessarily mean you should put it back on the shelf."

The food processors support the current/DRV label -- a modification of the format that consumers preferred in a 1989 NFPA survey. For example, if the product contained 5 milligrams of cholesterol, it would be compared with 300 milligrams of cholesterol required for the day.

"They liked a format that illustrates the nutrients and puts them into some perspective in what they should consume in the course of a day," Ms. Hildwine says. "They want simple reference points for calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium."

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