Food labels remain primary reference for diet choices

By Lorraine Heller, 16 Oct 2006

Most Americans use food labels and the government Food Pyramid to make informed diet choices, with a main priority being to follow a more nutritious diet, according to a new survey.

Two out of five US adults say they have changed their eating habits to conform to the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) nutrition guidelines, while just over half claim to check food labels when choosing products for themselves or their families, revealed the Harris Interactive/Wall Street Journal Online survey.

Conducted last month, the online survey involved almost 3,000 adults, most of whom (95 percent) said they have at some point used food labels when making food choices. The reason most frequently cited for using food labels was to follow a balanced, nutritious diet (39 percent). Other reasons included the management of a medical condition, such as diabetes or high cholesterol (23 percent), as well as weight loss (19 percent).

And top concern for 83 percent of consumers when looking to labels for nutrition information was the fat content of a product. Some 76 percent said they look for calorie information, while 72 percent look for sugar content.

Nutritional value is checked for by 69 percent of survey respondents, salt content by 68 percent and carbohydrates by 60 percent. Fiber content is a concern for 56 percent of adults, while organic ingredients came in last at 26 percent.

When it came to parents choosing products for their children, sugar content, nutritional value and fat content were the main concerns.

Of the adults who say they have altered their diets to conform to the USDA's Food Pyramid Guidelines, 22 percent say they have done so with regard to daily recommended food group servings, and 19 percent say they have done so with regard to portion size.

But despite the high numbers of consumers who say they use food labels and nutrition guidelines as diet information sources, there still remains a strong call for these to be simplified.

A recent study, published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, showed a significant deficiency in the public's understanding of food labels. In the study, poor label comprehension was correlated with low-level literacy and numeracy skills, but even patients with higher literacy could have difficulties interpreting labels.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center questioned 200 patients from a wide socioeconomic range. One part of the survey asked participants to interpret food labels for nutrient content by the amount of food consumed. The other part asked patients to choose which foods had more or less of a certain nutrient.

Only 37 percent of patients could calculate the number of carbohydrates consumed from a 20-ounce bottle of soda that contained 2.5 servings. While only 60 percent could calculate carbohydrates consumed if they ate half a bagel, when the serving size was a whole bagel.

According to a recent food labeling seminar organized by the Food Institute and law firm Olsson, Frank and Weeda, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently considering a number of labeling modifications, including changes to the way calories, trans fats and portion sizes are marked.

Conducted in June, the seminar revealed that anticipated changes to labels included a revision of the nutrition facts panel on food labels to emphasize a product's calorie content, as well as the adjustment of the way serving sizes are labeled in order to increase people's awareness of how much they eat. Another issue on the FDA's agenda is said to be the clarification of trans fats labeling, which could include setting a daily value percentage for trans fats.


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