Read it in good health Food labels help shoppers tp cut through all the baloney


Standing before row after row of luncheon meats at the Giant at Loch Raven Boulevard and Taylor Avenue, Arthur Boardman lifts a package off its hook and studies it intently. "My wife wants turkey breast," says the retired Social Security Administration employee. "What I'm looking for is calories per slice." He points to the corner of the label. "Ninety-seven percent fat-free. That's it." Into the cart it goes.

A few aisles over, Tom Leitzell, single and decades younger, studies the label on a jar of peanut butter. "Basically I want my food to be as simple as possible," he says. "I don't want sugar in my peanut butter, I just want peanuts."

Across town at Santoni's on East Lombard Street, Marcella Lorden, a Highlandtown homemaker, flips over a package of Perdue Fit 'n' Trim ground turkey to check the fat content. "I have to shop for certain things for my husband. He has a heart condition. So I have to read the labels pretty well," she says.

Scenes like these, enacted over and over in supermarkets around Baltimore, are enough to prove to consumer advocates, government agencies and the nutrition education industry that they are on the right track.

People are concerned about better nutrition. They're aware that too much fat and cholesterol and sodium are not good, and that they can make choices in the grocery aisles that will make their diets more healthful. They're wary of manufacturers who try to put products in the best light -- it seems the words "light" or "lite" on a package raise a red flag for most of them.

They know they need more information to make the best choices. That's why they're willing to stop and read the labels.

In fact, labels -- those seemingly innocuous, tiny-print panels that appear on the back or the side or the bottom of food packaging -- have become the rallying point for people in the nutrition establishment who want consumers to pay more attention to what they eat.

A new national food-labeling law intended to give consumers more information -- and to put that information into more useful terms -- is just beginning to be reflected on packaging.

This week, Oct. 11-17, the American Heart Association and the Healthy Choice company have teamed up for "HeartFest," a campaign to teach consumers the benefits of a diet low in fat, sodium and cholesterol, and how the new food labels can help them make food choices. Heart association volunteers will visit more than 6,000 groceries nationwide to give out brochures and information, and they hope to reach more than 5 million people.

"This is a critical time to educate people, as we're just beginning to see the new labels on products," says Anita Wehrman, a registered dietitian in Baltimore who's a volunteer with the American Heart Association.

Like many nutrition professionals, Ms. Wehrman worries about how people translate the information they have into purchasing decisions. "I think people are concerned about eating a balanced diet," she says, "but there's a lot of confusion surrounding the fat and cholesterol issues."

Most people know they need to reduce fat consumption to 30 percent of calories, she says, but some confuse the total diet with a single food, and think no food with more than 30 percent calories from fat can be included. In fact, calories from fat should add up to 30 percent of the total of all foods eaten.

Some foods will have more than 30 percent calories from fat but contain essential nutrients that shouldn't be left out of the diet. They need to be balanced with other foods, such as vegetables, which have virtually no calories from fat.

"We don't want people to get that good food-bad food idea -- we want them to understand the balance of nutrients," Ms. Wehrman says.

Will the labels be enough? If the Baltimore shoppers, Mr. Boardman, Mr. Leitzell and Mrs. Lorden are typical, the new labels might be exactly the thing to turn concerned shoppers into nutrition-savvy consumers.

According to a poll conducted in 1992 for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a Washington-based trade association, nearly three-quarters of all grocery shoppers are concerned enough about the nutritional quality of the foods they buy to read labels.

The survey, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc., showed:

* 72 percent of shoppers said they watch the amount and types of food they eat.

* 71 percent read the nutritional labels on foods either all the time or most of the time.

* 76 percent read the ingredients list.

Those figures are borne out by the experiences of area grocery sellers, who have in the past few years seen demand growing for low-fat, low-sodium, high fiber and fresh foods.

"We have definitely seen a trend at Giant," says Barry Scher, vice president of communications for the Landover-based food chain. "People are interested in healthier food, in more information on the label and more information at the point of purchase. People are more interested in poultry, pasta and seafood."

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