Good Nutrition Labels Lately?
By MARIAN BURROS - copyright 2004
When mandatory nutrition labeling for
packaged foods became the law of the land in 1994, the government predicted
that Americans would routinely use it and that it would improve their eating
habits. Give the government credit for getting it half right. Even as the
country gets fatter and fatter, people say they do look at the nutrition facts
panel on packaged foods.
In a telephone survey of 554 adults
nationwide by The New York Times, 85 percent of the respondents said they read
the label closely some or all of the time. About 66 percent said they had used
information to decide whether or not to buy something.
But follow-up interviews with some of those
questioned in the poll, which was conducted on Oct. 12 and 13, indicate that
people may concentrate on just one or two items on the label and ignore the
rest. Twenty-five percent of those polled said the first thing they looked at
was the amount of fat, 18 percent said calories and 10 percent said sugar. The
survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage
Many people focus on nutrients that affect
a health problem like diabetes or high blood pressure.
As someone with Type 2 diabetes,
68-year-old Stanton Taylor of Ogden, Utah, said he had been reading the
nutrition facts panel ever since it became mandatory. "I'm very sensitive about
sugar and carbs," he said. "Within the last year I had a session with a
dietician, and I became a little more sensitive to carbs. I didn't recognize
that certain types of carbs would readily convert to sugar. She made me more
aware that certain carbs are more desirable, like things with fiber."
By simply cherry-picking from labels,
consumers are not finding out enough about all the nutrients they need, said
Dr. Jeanne P. Goldberg, a professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of
Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
"My suspicion is that people take away
nuggets of information," Dr. Goldberg said, "but it doesn't add up to a
Sometime, possibly before the year is out,
the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for the label, plans to
suggest new ways to make it more useful. The changes are based on
recommendations made by the obesity report from the Institute of Medicine and
the agency's own working group on obesity.
The F.D.A. said it wants to initiate a
consumer education campaign, focusing on a "calories count" message. After
years of promoting a low-fat diet, it is ready to emphasize a new, but actually
very old and immutable scientific message: Those who consume more calories than
they expend in energy will gain weight. There is no getting around the laws of
Paul Fontaine, a 68-year-old engineer in
Houston, said he and his wife were often shocked by the amount of calories in
certain foods. "We're just at an age where we watch our weight," he said. "If
you are eating without reading you wind up, instead of eating 1,300 or 1,400
calories a day, you eat 2,500 and at our age you just can't do that."
To emphasize the importance of calories the
agency said it would like to make the calorie count more prominent on the label
and add the percentage of calories per serving, though most of those
interviewed after the Times survey said they did not find the percentages
"I don't base what we are eating on
percentages, because I've got three or four different-size people in my house,"
said Robin Postell, a 36-year-old mother of two in Houston, with a third on the
Mr. Fontaine of Houston was more dismissive
of percentages: "You give people percentages and they don't know what you are
talking about. I'm an engineer. Fine. But most people can't calculate."
The agency also said it plans to change the
serving sizes to more realistically reflect the larger portions that most
people eat. In addition it may authorize the use of health claims for foods
that meet its definition of "reduced" and "low" calorie.
The nutrition facts label provides the
serving size and calories per serving. It also includes the amount of total
fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber,
sugar and protein in a serving, plus the percentage of the daily intake of each
nutrient based on a healthy 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. This is called the
percent daily value, designed to help consumers understand how the food fits
into a healthy diet, though most women and some of the elderly cannot consume
that many calories and maintain their weight. The percentage of vitamins A and
C, calcium and iron are also included.
A few label users said they spend a lot of
time poring over the nutrition labels and other information on packages. "I
read them all the time," said Lois Williams of Chicora, Pa., who is 70. "It's
just a habit, and it determines the purchase because of the calories. I
generally go for light sugar. I double-check for the date on the box. Some
packages are more difficult to understand than others, and some dates are
confusing." Ms. Williams was among the 29 percent who said they read nutrition
Tracy Wilson, who is 38 and lives in State
College, Pa., was among the 56 percent of respondents who said they sometimes
looked at the labels. "I don't need to read nutrition labels closely to know
doughnuts are bad for me," Ms. Wilson said. "I just sort of know what would be
good and what wouldn't."
Starting in 2006 the government will
require labels to list the amount of trans fatty acids, fats that have been
linked to cardiovascular disease.
Patricia Andrews, 60, of Duncan, Okla.,
said that she changed her brand of peanut butter because she saw on the label
that the one she used had partially hydrogenated oil, the most common trans
Respondents' income and education had
little bearing on their attitudes, but interest in labels generally increased
with age. "If I want food, I'll buy it," said Elisabeth Pietronigro, 22, of
Westbury, N.Y. "I don't really care."
Linda Sowders, 55, of Sunland, Calif.,
wants to see what she is eating and looks to see how much sodium and how many
calories it has, and the nutritional value.
Women were more likely to say they used the
labels than men, perhaps because they do most of the grocery shopping. Janet
Hill, 45, of Newport News, Va., for example, said she was particularly
interested in sodium content as were 9 percent of respondents
because her husband uses a lot of soy sauce. "Once in a while he may pick up a
different kind of soy sauce, and I say, `Give me the bottle.' I look to see if
he's getting a million grams or not. I let him know about that so now he's
changed brands and gets light soy sauce."
Ms. Sowders not only wants to know what she
is eating, she wants to know what she is feeding her grandchildren. "If I buy
whole-wheat bread, and one bread has more sugar in it or more salt, I'll buy
the one with less sugar and less salt," she said.
None of the people interviewed, even those
who said they looked for calories, said they were dieting, even Dextricia
Vaught of Omaha, who reads labels more closely than most. "Most of the time I
look at ingredients and then at calories and then the amount of salt and
sugar," said Ms. Vaught, who is 33 and soon to be a mother. "I don't diet
because I read labels, and so I'm conscious of what I eat. I just try to
maintain proper balance in my nutrition all the time."
Only 8 percent of those surveyed said they
looked at carbohydrates first. So much for the low-carb fad. Still, the F.D.A.
plans to describe the term low-carb on labels.
But it will be many months before any of
the label changes appear. Dr. Barbara O. Schneeman, director of the Office of
Nutritional Products, Labeling and Dietary Supplements at the agency, said she
has given up predicting a date for even the first step in the process: an
announcement of the agency's intention to propose new rules.
"Our hope is by the end of the year," she
said. "People are well intentioned, but there are a number of steps of
No matter how many changes are made on the
nutrition facts panel, Dr. Schneeman said, they will not improve the country's
health profile. "The panel is a tool for people to use," she said. "It is not
education by itself, but provides information for consumers to use. Don't
expect the label on its own merits to prevent or cause a health problem."
Dr. Goldberg of Tufts says the nutrition
facts panel could be more helpful if people really knew how to use it. "There
never has been a program for the American public to educate people how to use
the food label."