Food Labeling Flummoxes Americans

food foods labels labeling nutrition facts

Many studies have concluded that the majority of Americans are utterly flummoxed by food labels. Such bafflement is a reflection in part of the lack of attention and savviness of the American consumer and also on the confusing food labeling system instituted within the United States. Multiple research groups concerned with the nation’s poor eating habits have identified several key points of confusion in America’s food labeling system and now are discussing how best to clarify them.

Food labeling became a concern for main-stream American starting in the 1960s when an increasing number of processed and/or fortified foods began to hit the markets. In 1968 the National Academy of Sciences set forth the Recommended Dietary Allowances. Since then the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has worked with the food industry, consumer advocate groups, health professionals and academics to regulate issues such as what aspects of nutrition need to be divulged on food labels, what foods need to be labeled, and guidelines for promotional health claims.

Today, decades-worth of research and effort has produced the standard and ubiquitous Nutrition Facts panel. However, research on American consumers shows that the many Americans do not look at food labels, look at only part of the food label, and/or often times misinterpret what they read. In one study only 26 percent of consumers self-reported always looking at the Nutrition Facts panel in the grocery store. Data from eye-tracking experiments showed that only nine percent of consumers examined the calorie count within a packaged food, and only 1 percent of people looked at other components of the label such as the fat or sugar content. Another study examining consumer responses on health claims about breakfast cereals found evidence that the majority of Americans misinterpret such claims.

What about the American food labeling system is so flummoxing? Researchers have suggested that part of the problem lies with consumer’s inability to make the basic mathematical calculations necessary to interpret the listed information (e.g. given multiple servings in a container and the calories per serving, how many calories are in the container?). This effect is particularly noticeable among elderly consumers and those with low education backgrounds.

However still others point to flaws that are fundamentally embedded within the food labeling system itself. To begin, the lack of standardization of a serving size can lead some consumers to wrongly conclude that one brand is healthier than another. For example, when comparing two brands of canned soup in equally sized cans, a consumer might conclude that the soup with the lower sodium content per serving would be the healthier option. However if a single can of soup contains multiple servings (as is often times the case) they will need to adjust their calculations.

Another point of confusion comes from how “good” food components are often interspersed with “bad” food components on food labels. For example, information on dietary fiber (of which most Americans do not consume enough) is interspersed with information on sodium and fat (of which most Americans consume far too much).

Furthermore, when examining the ingredients in a packaged food, only information on the relative abundance of a particular ingredient is listed. The ingredient incorporated into a food in the greatest amount is always listed first, but there is no telling how much of a particular ingredient was used. For instance, a juice advertised as “berry juice” may indeed contain juice from berries, but only in a very small proportion. Less expensive kinds of juice (e.g. apple) might be used to cut the juice. While the consumer can divine by the ingredients list that they are buying more apple juice than berry, he or she has no way of knowing if the boldly advertised “drink with a blast of berries” has anything more than a few drops of berry juice.

Currently, discussions are underway to examine how best to regulate and clarify the health information provided to consumers about the food that they eat. One of the more promising alternatives is the introduction of a “stoplight” system in which foods would be classified with green, yellow, or red lights in terms of specific nutritional components and overall health. However such a change in food labeling practices is anticipated to be logistically very difficult to implement and will face resistance from the food industry. In the mean time the individual consumer must read carefully and critically about what they put into their bodies. Buyer be warned.

By Sarah Takushi


National Academies Press
Time Magazine
Web MD 1
Web MD 2 

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