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Confused By Food Labels? Read the Fine Print!

  • April 10, 2011
  • 6:01 pm
  • 1 of 3
Confused By Food Labels? Read the Fine Print!
Even though nutrition info is slapped on all packaged foods and many restaurant items, people are heavier than ever. Use this advice to improve your label literacy.

By Amy Paturel, M.P.H., Women’s Health

Twenty years ago, no one scrutinized cereal boxes to compare calories in competing brands. They couldn’t–prior to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990, that info wasn’t on most packages. And forget about finding calories on restaurant menus.

The 125 best packaged foods for a healthy diet.

Yet the country’s obesity rate back then was about 14 percent lower than it is now. Labels, it seems, may be doing more harm than good. That’s why the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a nonprofit health advisory, is taking a fresh look at labeling policies in an effort to make the facts clearer and harder to ignore. Here’s how not to be duped.

Food Fakers

One of the biggest problems with labels is that while the NLEA specified what nutrition data should be shown, and even the typeface and size it had to be printed in, the legislation didn’t dictate where it should be placed. Consequently, most manufacturers will bury a product’s fact panel and ingredients list on the back or side of the package, while filling the front with such eye-catching words as sensible, smart, and healthy–claims that sound good and sell well but are often misleading.

Healthy eating 101: Nutrition advice from the world’s experts.

“Many manufacturers and supermarkets seem to be creating their own proprietary ways of highlighting attributes on the front of packages,” says Nancy Childs, Ph.D., a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “With this proliferation of front-of-the-box babble, it’s very hard for a consumer to make sense of what’s in a particular food.”

Indeed, studies at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab show that consumers tend to lowball the number of calories in foods whose packaging features words such as low-fat. This miscalculation leads them to eat more of the product, even when the marketing buzzwords have nothing to do with calories. Cookies, for instance, were thought to have 40 percent fewer calories just because the word organic was printed somewhere on the label.

The assertions themselves may be true, but that doesn’t make them any less confusing.

“You’ll see no cholesterol labels on products that never had cholesterol in them,” says Marisa Moore, R.D., a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “The food might be filled with sugar or saturated fat, but a person who has high cholesterol might think, ‘Oh, I can eat this,’ without understanding that saturated fat increases cholesterol levels.”

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+ add your own
7:53AM PST on Jan 20, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

12:16PM PDT on May 7, 2011

I always read labels. In Canada it's a law to write everything (but we never know if il is really followed!) not sure in U.S.
Thanks for this article!

12:45AM PDT on Apr 25, 2011

I've read labels for about as long as there has been something on them to read, as we had a son who had special dietary needs. I feel the main problem is that the manufactures have bastardized the quality of our food for the sake of their profits. Anything that they could do to produce a passable simile of the product for a lesser cost was done. Even now, they short the quantity in the package and raise the price, counting on the consumer not to notice the difference, because most shoppers just go down the aisle and put their usual purchase in the basket without really looking at the label. (I see this all the time in the store!) The shrinking product, started out as 16oz, then 15oz, then 14.5oz, now 13oz, and it costs 75 cents more than when it was 16oz, when will it stop? Will we be buying empty cans? What will they put on the labels then?

7:29AM PDT on Apr 20, 2011

I always read lables, they are so misleading sometimes. I hardly ever buy chocolat deserts ever since I read the calory count :-S

7:23PM PDT on Apr 18, 2011

I definitely read labels...and I don't buy it if it contains stuff I can't pronounce or HFCS...along with numerous other crap.

5:25AM PDT on Apr 16, 2011

thanks for telling the world

5:24AM PDT on Apr 16, 2011


10:13AM PDT on Apr 15, 2011


8:36AM PDT on Apr 15, 2011

What I want to know is why labels only need to have Vitamin A, C, Iron, and Calcium at the bottom. What if a product has a lot of potassium or iodine or Vitamin B6? It would be nice to know what other nutrients are in what you're eating. It's easy to know for fresh food (go to The World's Healthiest Foods website), but for packaged foods, I really wish they would put a full list of nutrients.

12:05PM PDT on Apr 14, 2011

Well they start sneaking all sorts of crap into our food .. Sad but you cannot trust food companies anymore .. all they care about is profit!!!!

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