Navigating the food-label maze

American's food supply is the safest and most varied on the planet. But confusion persists over what to eat, how much, and how to judge nutrition facts against manufacturers' claims.

When Peggy Douglas enters her neighborhood Stop & Shop supermarket in Boston, she finds a shopping cart and heads down the aisle to do battle. For her, shopping is something of a food fight - or at least a shoving match.

As a conscientious consumer, she wants value, nutrition, taste, and safety from her food. She thinks the big problem complicating shopping is the corporate producers and marketers of food who tangle with federal regulatory agencies. "The labels and opinions are always changing," she says. "What is good now was bad 10 years ago."

She shakes her head, lifts a bag of dried beans from the shelf, and reads the label. She shrugs. "The only thing you can be sure of is green tea and olive oil," she says in a battle-weary voice.

Choosing products in the intensely competitive food world these days is more than just an exercise in reading labels. If a shopper wants to understand what a nutrition label really means, be prepared for a miniarchaeological expedition into nutrition and health assumptions.

Tens of thousands of new products

Since labeling began in 1994, answering such questions as: Can the label be trusted? What about portion size? Additives? Who regulates this stuff? has only become more difficult. New food products are coming on the market at a rate of between 30,000 and 35,000 a year, about five times greater than 25 years ago. As concern mounts about irradiated and genetically altered products, organic foods are now the fastest-growing segment of the food market, and diet supplements are as plentiful as potato chips.

A large supermarket today can have as many as 15,000 food items, each with a label. It's so competitive that many food suppliers have to pay controversial "slotting" fees to retailers to gain prime shelf space.

Label regulation, including health claims, is shared by two federal agencies: the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates food advertising.

Many economists praise the abundance as proof of a vigorous marketplace. The heavily regulated food system in the United States remains the standard-bearer for the world.

"We need as many brands as possible," says Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "Some people might call it clutter, but it means we have a greater variety than ever, and consumers vote with their money."

But whether the food-labeling system is user-friendly and trustworthy depends on understanding the assumptions and "language" behind the label, and sometimes reading between the lines.

"Despite its detractors," says Elizabeth Ward, a dietitian from Stoneham, Mass., "labeling does a good job. The percent of daily values is confusing to people, but it boils down to this: You should know what you need to eat and gauge the food against that."

The USDA has recommended "what you need to eat" by establishing the percent of "daily values," a measure of how many nutrients a serving contains in a daily diet.

Leading the list on the label is "serving size." The manufacturer, not a regulatory agency, determines the size of a serving. Often the sizes differ among similar products, making nutritional comparisons difficult. If the food serving has less than 5 percent of a certain nutrient, such as fiber or protein, it is considered to be low in that nutrient even while the food could be high in other nutrients. If a food has 10 to 20 percent of a nutrient, it is considered high, or "good."

For an exacting consumer, the only way to determine daily value derived from various foods would be to keep a tally after time-consuming comparative shopping. Complicating things further is the fact that fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats are not required to list nutrients on the label.

Keeping track of the shifting opinions about additives, diet supplements, organic foods, and changing regulations requires as much close attention as following the stock market.

For instance, food additives are any substances added to foods - such as stabilizing emulsifiers, vitamins, or preservatives. After an additive is tested and approved by the FDA, it is subject to safety review by the Adverse Reaction Monitoring System.

"We have communicated a message to the American people that eating is really very complicated," says Jeanne Goldberg, director of the Center on Nutrition Communication at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., "and to do it right you have to know a huge amount. And it's just not that complicated."

She maintains that most adults, even overeaters, if they were asked to tell the four or five things that are considered most important to a healthy diet, could probably do it. Good food consumption is not a mystery in a culture where junk food is popular. (Junk food is defined as food devoid of nutrients except for calories.)

"People choose what they want to eat fundamentally because of taste," Ms. Goldberg says. Taste, of course, is highly subjective. Nutrition is less so. Thus, the rationale for food labels.

Labels show fats as the current bugaboo

Goldberg thinks food labeling focuses too much on fat content. "When the label was designed, it came at a time when there was a heavy emphasis on fat," she says. "In my view, the important things are calories and portions of food." Too much fat in a diet, say doctors and government agencies, can increase the risk of heart disease.

For a nation struggling with too many obese citizens, interest in fat is not on the wane. And the first change in labeling since 1994 has been proposed by the FDA because of fat. The culprit is trans fatty acids in hydrogenated vegetable oil, the fat that makes doughnuts, French fries, and cookies taste so good.

Food labels now list saturated fat (considered "bad" fat) and unsaturated fat, but when the percentage of trans fat is added (instead of just listing it as partially hydrogenated oil), the consumer could be faced with some juggling to avoid trans fat.

Listing trans fat, in some instances, could double the amount of fat in a food that previously was considered not so fatty. And it would also increase the demand on consumers to make sense of all the fats.

For instance, a snack food might have 3 grams of saturated fat, or 14 percent of the recommended daily allowance, plus 4 grams of trans fat, or a total of 35 percent allowed for one day. A food could also be low in saturated fat, but loaded with trans fat.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been warning for years about trans fat, says there is a possible way to eliminate trans fat presence. "It would be better if companies used ingredients that didn't have trans fat," he says, "namely avoiding the use of shortening that contains hydrogenated oils."

Studies have indicated that when consumers make choices in the supermarket, rationality is often mixed with irrationality. A lifetime of fixed attitudes about food dovetails with covert brand loyalty plus a dash of skepticism. A consumer may avoid red meat, but fixate on glazed doughnuts, deny candy but binge on coffee. Many consumers, after gleaning initial information years ago, simply don't read labels anymore.

Deborah Donahue, a high school teacher, wife, and mother of two daughters, lives in Winchester, Mass. She says, "I don't buy much labeled food at all." Her busy family eats together maybe two nights a week for a sit-down meal, and even then it might be takeout food.

"I don't like the idea of all the additives," she says. "I buy fresh vegetables and bread at a local bakery. If I buy fish or chicken, I wouldn't do it at a supermarket, but at a local store or a fish market."

An abundance of food in a thriving American economy has led to the constant "pressure to eat," asserts Kelly Brownell, a professor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

According to Goldberg, large amounts of food - called "supersizing" when served at restaurants, fast-food stores, and as snack foods - are slowly changing what a "normal"-size portion is or used to be.

People may be eating more fat-free food, but at the same time they are eating greater amounts of food for snacks and meals. This may be one of the reasons so many Americans are overweight.

Skewed ideas of portion size

"Food is everywhere, and in gigantic proportions," says Ms. Ward. "It's much easier to overeat when you have 24-hour access to high-calorie foods. As far as the pressure goes, we must resist, and ask ourselves if we are truly hungry. Few people let themselves get truly hungry."

The irony is that while many Americans are overweight, just as many are label readers, conscious of fitness and health. "I think we are seeing a barbell effect," says Mr. Grabowski. "Look at the number of health-food stores; look at organic foods. This is the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. For every person who is eating too much there is one who is eating much better."

As more and more diet supplements come on the market, label readers should exercise caution, say experts. Critics charge that nearly all supplements that are herbs, such as St. John's wort, ginkgo, echinacea, etc., should be regarded as drugs with a need to be scientifically evaluated to establish or refute health claims. The FDA currently does not test or authorize diet supplements, and, in fact, denies they are drugs. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) establishes labeling requirements.

All the supplements, no matter how subtle or direct the health claims, must carry the following disclaimer: "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease."

Finally, beyond the authority and controversy of food labeling, is the unknown.

"Nutrition is not physics or math," says Ward. "You are dealing with the human body, which is still mysterious in many ways."

Goldberg urges nutritional simplicity. "If the American public simply followed the [daily] food guide pyramid," says Goldberg, "and ate portions in limited amounts, and did physical exercise, there would be an enormous improvement in health and fitness."

How to find your own "daily values"

Daily values are intended to show consumers how a food fits into their overall eating plan. The guidelines are based on current nutrition and health advice and are set by the government. For all labels, the benchmark daily value is 2,000 or 2,500 calories per day. To determine whether your calorie intake should be higher or lower, experts say, use this estimate:

* Many women and older adults may need only about 1,500 to 1,600 calories a day.

* Active women, women who are pregnant or nursing, teenage girls, and most men need about 2,200 to 2,500 calories a day.

* Teenage boys and active men may need about 2,800 calories a day.

To calculate your recommended daily calorie intake, visit the Web site:

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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