New, Improved Food Labels

May 07, 1994

Supermarkets are always full of "new, improved" foodstuffs. These days, however, the most noticeable -- and welcome -- improvement in grocery stores and snack machines is not the food itself but the information on its label. Starting tomorrow, new regulations governing the labeling of food products require bigger, simpler, more informative labels that should vastly increase consumers' ability to monitor what they eat.

Under the old labeling system, only about 60 percent of food products carried labels at all; now virtually all of them will. More important, the labels will be easier to read and will actually convey useful information.

The old food labeling system, adopted in 1973, was a relic of a time when the science of nutrition was much less advanced than today. Anyone who ever tried to decipher those labels knew that without a calculator and a degree in nutrition it could be a losing battle to determine which brand of cookie or which can of soup was a better nutritional bargain. Even those who persevered could easily be defeated, since serving sizes varied widely and manufacturers were free to define their own meaning of terms such as "lite" or "low fat."

The new regulations require a bigger, more readable label that highlights not grams and milligrams but rather the percentage of daily value for each ingredient. In general, says David Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, anything under 5 percent is low. For instance, a product whose sodium content is less than 5 percent of daily value is low in salt. The same goes for fat or cholesterol. That makes it much easier to compare various brands.

The new system standardizes information about serving sizes, so you can figure out how many calories you get from a bag of potato chips without weighing the number of ounces you've eaten. It also requires more precision in listing ingredients -- especially important to people who have allergies or problems digesting a particular nutrient.

In recent years, confusing labels and nutritional claims have yielded more frustration than enlightenment for consumers who tried to monitor their diets. But thanks to the perseverance of consumer groups -- and hard work by the FDA to implement the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act -- consumers now have an important tool to help them preserve their health.

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