It may take a while for consumers to digest thoroughgoing new food labels

January 31, 1993|By Shari Roan | Shari Roan,Los Angeles Times

A new world of food labeling is upon us, and supermarket shoppers are about to boldly go where no consumer has gone before.

Under the first major new regulations in 20 years, those venturing into markets in 1993 will find more stringent -- and truthful -- claims, with healthful eating the priority. For example:

* No more touting corn flakes as having "no cholesterol" when it never had any cholesterol to begin with.

* No more listing of thiamine, riboflavin and other obscure nutrients that are no longer deficient in most Americans' diets.

FTC * No more calling an ice cream sandwich bar "low fat" when what the manufacturer is referring to is the substitute ice cream center -- while the high-fat chocolate outer coating is ignored.

* No more saying "contains oat bran" without listing the actual amount of fiber and whether that amount constitutes a significant portion of the recommended daily intake of fiber.

* No more saying one-eighth of a cake mix has only 130 calories and three grams of fat while ignoring the fact that after you add margarine and milk and make the cake, one-eighth has more than 200 calories and 10 grams of fat.

"I think that consumers are finally going to get some honesty," says Jeanne Polak, a professor of nutrition at Los Angeles Valley College who was among the experts who advised the Food and Drug Administration on the new food labels. "There are so many misleading factors in labeling."

In 1973, the government decided to use food labels to impart nutritional information to consumers. Before then, labels were used to assure consumers that manufacturers were keeping harmful ingredients -- like formaldehyde -- out of food.

Although the new labels won't be easy to comprehend, eventually they should clear up confusion in the grocery aisles.

"It's going to take some education to understand it; there is a lot of information on this label," says Mary Felando, a registered dietitian and American Heart Association volunteer who was also an adviser on the new labels. "But we've been allowed to consume foods not knowing what they contain. So it's wonderful for people who want to eat more healthfully."

The new law mandates that all processed foods -- 257,000 products -- must comply. While manufacturers have until May 1994 to make the changes, many are expected to phase in the new labels within months.

Producers of raw meat and poultry will comply with a similar set of guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And nutritional information for many raw fruits and vegetables also will be available in stores.

Only 60 percent of food products are labeled now, says Ed Scarbrough, director of the FDA's office of food labeling. "And the ones that haven't had it in the past are ones that generally haven't had a good nutrition story to tell."

The new labels will look very different from previous ones: Instead of listing the calories, followed by a list of vitamins and minerals, they will tell you what is most important regarding your health.

For example, the labels must list total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron.

Americans simply don't need to worry any more about some minor nutrients, like Vitamin K and zinc, experts say.

"We are not a country that is not eating enough vitamins and minerals," says Ms. Felando. "We are a country suffering the problems of over-consumption."

Also new -- and potentially most difficult to understand -- is a part of the label called "Percent Daily Value," designed to help consumers tally their servings over the course of the day. The new label would tell not only how many grams of fat are in a serving, but also how much that serving will contribute toward their total daily intake of fat.

For example, a food with 140 milligrams of sodium per serving could be mistaken for a high amount. Actually, the "Percent Daily Value" will show that that amount represents less than 6 percent of the recommended maximum daily intake of sodium, which is 2,400 milligrams.

Ms. Polak says she fears that all these grams and percentages will intimidate consumers and make them reluctant to use the labels.

"This information won't always be clear to the public," she says. "Most people don't know what a gram is. How many people know how to do percentages? These are not easy concepts for some people. I'm a pragmatist when it comes to the consumer. It has to be easy."

But the "Percent Daily Value" is important to tell consumers whether they are eating a little or a lot of a particular nutrient, Ms. Felando argues.

"It's complicated, and that's why we have to hope the government follows this labeling plan with a good education plan," she says.

Mr. Scarbrough says the government recognizes that an education program will have to accompany the new labels. But so far the program is in the early planning stages, and Mr. Scarbrough admits the budget for education is small.

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