Posts Tagged ‘Food Labels’

Food Label Updates Only Make Sense if Consumers Pay Attention

March 5th, 2014 at 2:24 pm by timigustafson

The recent announcement by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of its plans to redesign Nutrition Facts labels on food packages has been widely welcomed by health experts who see it as an important step in the fight against obesity and other diet-related diseases. It would be the first revision in 20 years, and some say an update is long overdue considering both advances in nutrition science and shifts in consumer behavior.

Consumer advocates have often lamented that the way food manufacturers convey nutritional data is confusing, leaving people less, not more, empowered to make informed choices.

“Unless you had a thesaurus, a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition, you were out of luck. So you felt defeated and you just went back to buying the same stuff,” said the First Lady, Michelle Obama, at a White House event where she revealed the proposed changes. “As parents and as consumers, we have a right to understand what’s in the food we’re feeding our families,” she added.

For this, the new panels will emphasize the most important data consumers should know about, including easily identifiable serving sizes, calories, total fat, sugar, sodium, and calories from fat. Especially serving sizes are too often calculated in seemingly arbitrary ways and can be hard to decipher. A more intuitive approach would help.

But the question remains whether and how people will make use of the information they’re given. According to a survey by the NPD Group, a research agency, less than half of American food shoppers check labels regularly. 48 percent say they read labels to determine whether food items have ingredients they try to cut back on or avoid altogether – down from the nearly 65 percent in 1990 when the current labels were first introduced.

The decline leaves room for interpretation. We could see the changes as a success in educating the public, said Harry Balzer, the NPD Group’s chief industry analyst. “After all, how many times do you need to look at the Nutrition Facts label on your favorite cereal, or your favorite juice, and any other food you routinely consume,” he asked.

Perhaps, but it could also be that people are fed up with too many, and oftentimes contradictory, messages about what and what not to eat. They know that some of their favorites may not be the healthiest, but they find it exhausting to keep their guard up at all times. It is also unclear from the report whether demographic shifts play a role in the trends.

The new labels, if they become law, don’t satisfy all demands health advocates have made over the years. For example, consumers would greatly benefit if they knew not only which nutrients they should limit – like saturated fat, sodium, added sugar, etc. – but also which ones they are at risk of not getting enough – such as calcium, fiber, vitamin D, etc., said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies at the Whole Grains Council (WGC), in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA.

Also, with its current proposal, the FDA has apparently shied away from a bolder approach of placing some key data on the front of food packages, as Australia and several European countries have done. In addition to panels, some use visual rating systems like stars, traffic light colors or numerical scales.

Still, the updates could not only help consumers but also give food manufacturers incentives to improve the quality of their products, according to David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner who was responsible for implementing the original labeling mandate in 1990. “No one wants their product to look bad on labels,” he said.

Hopefully, we wont have to wait another 20 years to make further progress.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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FDA Plans to Update Food Labels, but Will It Help Consumers?

January 29th, 2014 at 12:58 pm by timigustafson

It has been 20 years since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last issued guidelines for food labels as they appear on bags and packages in supermarkets and grocery stores. Since then, consumer behavior has significantly changed and advocates have long called for making the information more user-friendly.

“The food environment has changed and our dietary guidance has changed,” said Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods who worked at the agency in the early 1990s when a universal labeling system was first introduced. “It’s important to keep this updated, so what is iconic doesn’t become a relic,” he added.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that food manufacturers offered any nutrition information at all. Since people still cooked most of their meals from scratch at home, there was no real need for it. However, as consumers sought greater convenience, the demand for processed foods increased. Eventually those trends prompted congress to impose regulations.

But it wasn’t an easy process, and to some extent, it still isn’t. Especially the listings of serving sizes are utterly confusing to most people who often don’t realize that many food containers hold multiple servings, which can distort other data on the so-called Nutrition Facts labels as well.

“The agency is working toward publishing proposed rules to update the nutrition facts labels and serving size information to improve consumer understanding and use of nutrition information,” said Julie Putnam, a media spokesperson for the FDA, to TIME magazine. “For example, the initial nutritional facts label focused on fat and diet. There is now a shift to focus on calories to help consumers construct healthy diets.”

Also the positioning of food labels needs reviewing. Most labels are placed on the back or one side of the packages and can be hard to read, especially for seniors. A front-of-package design using sufficiently large fonts could be more helpful.

While today’s consumers are arguably better informed about issues of nutrition and nutritional health than ever before, they also get sometimes overwhelmed with data they don’t readily understand. For instance, the metric system that measures ingredients in grams and milligrams is not familiar to many Americans and often leaves them at a loss for what the numbers truly mean.

And although there is some evidence that more people are interested in food labels nowadays, studies have shown that only a fraction – fewer than 10 percent – actually looked at calorie counts, and only a miniscule number – about 1 percent – viewed additional components like fat, trans fat, added sugar and serving sizes. Still, well over one-third claimed to check at least for one ingredient they deemed important.

Regardless of these rather disillusioning findings, a recently released report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed that more Americans indeed consume slightly fewer calories, prepare more of their own meals, and want to know about the quality of the foods they buy. The report also found that a growing number are aware of nutrition guidelines and pay attention, at least to some degree, to what they recommend.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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It’s a proven fact that most people change their eating habits and lifestyle choices only after a serious health scare such as a heart attack or a diabetes diagnosis. Still, in many cases that may not be enough. Old habits tend to die hard, but often there are also not many alternatives to what they’ve been doing in terms of eating right and taking care of themselves.

A recent study found that most consumers after being confronted with a major health crisis were still influenced in their choices by factors other than what’s good for their health. For example, people can find it difficult to change their long established eating habits, says Dr. Yu Ma, an economics professor at Alberta School of Business and author of the study. Another highly influential factor is price, he says. If they get a good deal on a particular item, they will go for it, and if it’s too expensive, they will stay away, no matter how much they would benefit healthwise.

Another issue is what he calls the “health halo effect.” Most people divide foods simply into two categories: healthy and unhealthy, he says. If something is considered healthful, e.g. a salad or a breakfast cereal, as opposed to a cheeseburger or a sugar-laden donut, people tend to overindulge in the “healthy” stuff without much further thought. We have seen that phenomenon when, for example, fat-free cookies came on the market and many believed they could consume those in almost unlimited quantities because of the absence of fat. Of course, eliminating the fat did not make those cookies less caloric, and the results became apparent soon thereafter.

Another study, this one on heart attack and stroke patients, showed that nearly 15 percent did not alter their eating and lifestyle habits after the incident, including poor diet choices, lack of exercise and smoking. Less than half of all participants in the study reported having made at least one change, and less than a third said they made several improvements. Only 4 percent claimed they did everything that was recommended to them to prevent further deterioration of their health.

Much of the unwillingness or inability to make healthier diet and lifestyle choices can be blamed on the widespread confusion among the public due to the ceaseless onslaught of sometimes contradictory messages in the media about health matters. In addition, many of the warnings issued by experts are hard to heed by consumers who are oftentimes ignorant, if not intentionally kept in the dark, about the nutritional quality of their food supply. For instance, recommendations to avoid high fat, salt and sugar content may be well-meaning, but they are by and large useless when ingredients lists are hard to decipher or when restaurants aren’t required to follow any dietary guidelines or to post nutritional information on their menus.

“I think people are interested in making changes and they are heeding the warnings,” said Dr. Sara Bleich, an associate professor of health policy at the John Hopkins School of Public Health to NBCNews. “But when it comes to food, it’s much more complicated. Cereal, for example, has a tremendous amount of added sugar. And not everyone understands that breakfast foods like muffins and pastry, things that people don’t consider to be a dessert or an indulgence, pack a lot of sugar.” Similar concerns apply to salt in countless processed foods, many of which don’t even taste salty, and certain types of fats, some of which are obscured by arbitrary serving descriptions on food labels.

Undoubtedly, more and more people want to be better informed about nutritional health and be empowered to make the right choices. With growing consumer demand for further regulation and protection, that may be feasible over time. But for now, it’s an ongoing uphill battle, and most of us have to fend for ourselves as well as we can.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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New Nutrition Facts Labels Aim to Be Less Confusing to Consumers

January 26th, 2013 at 12:15 pm by timigustafson

How many servings do you get out of one muffin? The obvious answer – one – is incorrect. The right amount is two. Why? Because that is how food manufacturers calculate calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, protein and other ingredients. It’s not the individual item or container that counts but how it is divided up, often in the most arbitrary ways.

The so-called nutrition facts labels you find on the back of all packaged food and beverage products are not only hard to decipher, they mislead consumers who are already confused about their dietary needs.

It has been 20 years since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has last addressed the issue of food labeling. To overhaul the current regulations, the agency commissioned a new study to determine how labels could be simplified to help consumers make healthier food choices and limit portions. Confusion over serving sizes is considered a contributing cause to obesity.

For the study, researchers developed alternative displays of nutritional details based on whole food and beverage containers instead of serving sizes.

“The nutrition facts label is only one tool that can help consumers make informed food choices […], but it is a valuable tool, so it is important to continue exploring ways to support effective use of the label for these purposes,” said Dr. Serena C. Lo, one of the study leaders, in an interview with BusinessNewsDaily.

The researchers also found that the percentage of consumers who actually read food labels before purchasing products they are unfamiliar with has risen from 44 percent in 2002 to 54 percent in 2008.

One of the reasons why dividing entire package contents into smaller serving sizes is so important to the food industry is that the apportionment is a useful tool for making products sound healthier than they are. For example, if one serving has only a miniscule amount of a certain ingredient, e.g. trans fat, it can be labeled as 0 percent, while the whole package may contain significantly more.

It is not clear whether giving people information per content or per serving would make much of a difference in their eating behavior. Would they stop gorging themselves on potato chips half way through the bag if they knew the amounts of calories and fat up front instead of having to do math themselves? Doubtful.

But that’s not really the point. What the issue of food labeling comes down to is the right of us consumers to know what we eat. Just like we should have full disclosure about genetically modified foodspink slime or meat glue, we should have access to information on our entire food supply. Anything short of that is deception.

The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, a nonprofit organization that sets standards for identity and quality of medicines and food ingredients worldwide, defines the “deliberate substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients or food packaging, or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain” as “food fraud.” Where are we willing to draw the line?

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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