Truth in labeling

May 04, 1994

One of the things visitors from formerly communist countries marvel at most in this country is the vast array of products found in any American supermarket. From potato chips to peas, shoppers expect to make a selection from among several choices. But choices don't count for much if consumers don't have the information that truly distinguishes one product from the next.

It has taken four years to implement the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, but this Sunday regulations finally go into effect that enable consumers to learn a lot more about the food they buy. This should makes it easier to cut down on calories, fat, cholesterol or salt.

For some people, the new labels required of food manufacturers will be more than a convenience. Significant numbers of Americans have medical conditions stemming from an inability to digest certain kinds of ingredients.

Often the culprit is a milk product or a particular grain, such as wheat, corn, rice or soy. Grains are so pervasive in the food supply that current food labels often fail to provide enough information to alert people who need to stay away from a particular variety. In these cases, better labeling is essential to preventing severe health problems.

Under the old labeling system, fully 40 percent of the nation's processed foods carried no nutrition information at all. When labels were provided, they were often printed in tiny type, making them difficult to read. Shoppers who could make out the words and numbers might still be left in confusion, unless they were nutritionists and carried a calculator.

From that starting point, improvement was not difficult. But as new labels have begun appearing in supermarkets, consumers have been pleasantly surprised at how helpful they can be. They're bigger and easier to read; they are also simple. The key information is the percentage of the daily required value of each ingredient. David Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, suggests a simple approach -- the 5 percent rule. If a food has less than 5 percent of the daily value of any nutrient, such as fat or sodium, consumers can assume it is low in that ingredient.

The old saying suggests that you are what you eat. Now, Americans can also know what they eat.

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