Chow Line: Consumer use of food labels declines (for 10/19/08)

October 10, 2008

I try to read Nutrition Facts labels when comparing foods, but a friend told me to pay more attention to ingredient lists. Really?

Hmm. Actually, both the Nutrition Facts labels and the ingredient lists carry important information. But your question points out an issue that's been a hot topic among nutrition experts recently: Just how helpful are food labels these days?

Packaged foods began carrying the Nutrition Facts label in 1994. The idea was to give consumers easy-to-read information about the nutrients in foods so they could make more informed choices. But a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service released in August found that use of Nutrition Facts labels and ingredient lists actually declined between 1995 and 2006. Specifically, use declined approximately:

  • By 3 percentage points for the Nutrition Facts panel.
  • By 10 percentage points for the panel's information about calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium.
  • By 11 percentage points for the ingredient list.

On the other hand, consumer use of labels to look for fiber information increased by 2 percentage points. Use of labels for information on sugar content remained the same.

Some food manufacturers have recognized that consumers want an easier way to compare products. For example, General Mills cereals carry a "Nutrition Highlights" label and Kellogg's has "Nutrition at a Glance" information highlighting key nutrients on the front of cereal boxes. Other General Mills foods have a "Goodness Corner" on their packages that call attention to the food's nutrients or health benefits, such as helping to reduce cholesterol or the risk of heart disease.

The Food and Drug Administration is now considering changes to the format and content of the food label. But in the meantime, here are a few tips that can help:

  • Scan the Nutrition Facts label for saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and cholesterol -- the lower, the better.
  • Look for higher amounts of fiber, calcium, vitamins A and C, and iron.
  • Look at the calories per serving and serving size to make sure you don't over-indulge.
  • In ingredient listings, look for indications that the food is a good source of whole grains. If so, one of these terms should be first on the ingredient list: brown rice, bulgur, graham flour, oatmeal, whole-grain corn, whole oats, whole rye, whole wheat or wild rice. On the other hand, limit foods with the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" in the ingredient listing to limit trans fats.

For more information on using the Nutrition Facts label, see http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/foodlab.html.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or filipic.3@cfaes.osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Julie Shertzer, registered dietitian and program specialist for Ohio State University Extension in the Department of Human Nutrition, in the College of Education and Human Ecology.

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Author(s): 
Martha Filipic
Source(s): 
Julie Shertzer