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Facts and Our Figures

ConsumerInterpreting nutrition facts and health claims on food packages, experts say, can be a complicated task for consumers.


For health-conscious shoppers, a stroll down the cereal aisle of their local supermarket can be both an educational—and an overwhelming—experience. Offers to help consumers lose weight and lower their cholesterol jump off front of boxes and cans. On the back, Nutrition Facts Panels detail everything from the serving size to percent daily values. For many, it can be a lot to digest.

Despite the surplus of information in the food marketplace, some experts at Tufts' Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy question whether consumers know how to use food labels to make smart nutritional choices.

"We need to understand some of the factors that go into helping people choose a diet which is nutritionally sound," says Jeanne Goldberg, Ph.D., director of the Friedman School's Center on Nutrition Communication. Nutrition labels are one place to start, she says.

Limits of Labeling

In theory, nutrition labels, which have been mandatory on foods in the United States for more than a decade, should be an effective tool for consumers. As Goldberg explains, the standardized charts packed with nutritional facts and figures "provide consumers with information that can be extremely useful to them."

Supermarket

A stroll down the supermarket aisle can be overwhelming—and a bit confusing—for some health-conscious consumers.

In actuality, however, the labels don't necessarily live up to their potential. For many consumers, interpreting the data on their favorite food packages can be difficult.

"The label is not really easy to use," says Goldberg, pointing to elements like percent daily value, which tells consumers how much of a particular item—calories, fat, sodium—the food contains. "It's very complicated; it's based on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet and most people don't have a clue how many calories they eat in a day."

The information is also based on a single serving. But many packages—even those that look small—actually contain multiple servings. "They don't reflect what people actually eat," Goldberg says. And people rarely divide products like a 12-ounce can of juice into two portions, she adds, even if the label on the container indicates that there are two servings.

Labels also focus too much on fat, says Goldberg, who believes that an emphasis on calories may better serve consumers. But she stresses that nutrition depends on a combination of these elements and "the overall big picture of diet."

Still, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has an opportunity to make these panels more effective, Goldberg says. But more research is needed to understand how different groups of consumers use them. "For what purposes do consumers—if they could understand it—find nutrition labels most useful?" Goldberg asks. "We need to redesign a food label based on the answer to that question."

Sifting Through The Claims

Perhaps more troubling are the health claims made elsewhere on the packages or in advertisements for products. Unbeknownst to the average consumer, the claims food manufacturers make about their products are held to different federal standards, depending on where the statements appear, explains Parke Wilde, Ph.D., a food economist at the Friedman School.

Wilde, who directs the Friedman School's Food Policy and Applied Nutrition Program, explains that front-of-package claims—such as those that offer to help consumers lose weight or lower their cholesterol—are regulated by the FDA, the same agency that oversees the Nutrition Facts Panel. But the health claims made by manufacturers in advertisements on television or in print media, he explains, are regulated by a separate agency: the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Because of this difference, the health-related message consumers receive about a particular food product through an advertisement may be different than what they learn from the claims they see on the package in the store. The result, says Wilde: consumer confusion. (continued)

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Profile written by Meghan Mandeville, Tufts Web Communications

Photos by Joanie Tobin, Tufts Photo

This story originally ran online on March 26, 2007.