December 16, 2010

By Julie Upton

Research shows that those who read labels when shopping purchase healthier foods and have better diets. The problem is most of us aren’t reading labels, and those who do can’t put the information on the label into practice.

The good news is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other national health organizations are re-evaluating the nutrition labels on packages and have announced that they have started working on new packaging legislation. At the same time, the food industry is creating its own strategies for marketing nutrition on packages.

The two sides are taking almost opposite approaches to coming up with something better.

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Accentuate the positive vs. shock and awe
The food industry wants the new labels to accentuate the positive nutrients in foods like vitamins and minerals. They want us to eat more—period.

The government, on the other hand, is considering highlighting nutrition information, primarily calories, added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium—those nutrients that we get too much of and need to limit and which are responsible for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension. It wants us to eat less, taking more of a military-esque "shock and awe" approach to making us think twice about what we’re about to eat.

Both sides would like this information to be prominently displayed on the front of the packages, not buried on the back or side panels, where you’re less likely to see and use the information.

Being a dietitian, I'm a label skimmer, and am lucky to have the skills to put food labels into perspective. I know “natural” isn’t relevant to nutrition, nor are many other marketing buzzwords. I also know that I need about 2,200 calories a day, I know what %DV means, I am clued into how much fat I need daily, and I can easily tell when a food has too much added sugar. Most people don’t have these same skills.

How I’d change food labels
To make labels more user-friendly and meaningful, here’s what I’d propose:

  • Display calories per package and per serving on front of package
  • Make serving sizes less puny (let’s be realistic)
  • Highlight saturated fat and added sugars per serving

Focusing on these three simple changes can help a majority of people make significant improvements in their food choices.

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