Agriculture Alliance: The labeling maze

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Sample nutrition labels

A B C

Serving size 33 grams 59 grams 55 grams

Calories 120 200 210

Sodium 320 mg 5 mg 140 mg

Cholesterol 0 g 0 g 0 g

Protein 2 g 6 g 4 g

Carbohydrate 29 g 48 g 45 g

Sugar 3 g 12 g 18 g

Potassium 40 mg 200 mg 230 mg

No. of Vitamins and minerals 11 11 5

No. of Vitamins and minerals artificially added

11 8 0

Number of times forms of sugar are listed in the ingredients

2 2 6

Eating meets a number of needs for people - social interaction, medicinal purposes, political statements, a wide variety of emotional needs - but the basic purpose of eating is survival. People must eat to survive. Beyond survival, eating can help to determine quality of life. It is common knowledge that healthy eating helps people feel better, be more active and live longer. As people go to the store to buy food, it is an assumption that food labels would help them to make better, more healthful choices. But as consumers look at the labels on foods, they will notice that labels carry a wide variety of labels. The same label on two products may not mean the same thing. This is because food manufacturers, grocery stores and trade and health organizations are developing symbol programs to promote "better for you" products and help consumers make healthier choices.

Front-of-the pack labels are called call outs. Typically, the call outs focus on nutrients to avoid. Front-of-the pack call outs yell "lower in sodium, nonfat, no transfats, low calorie, sugar free, no cholesterol," among other things. This doesn't help Americans who have become the most overfed and yet undernourished country in the world. The problem with using the call-out labeling is that although it tells you what is not in the package, it doesn't tell you what is in the package. This was demonstrated many years ago when people were buying sugar-free items to help them lose weight and actually gained weight. People assumed that sugar free meant low calorie, but to make the product have a taste and texture that consumers would keep buying, manufacturers had to add fat. Some sugar-free items had more calories than their sugar added counterparts.

Back of the package labels are the Nutritional Panel. They contain the serving size, calorie per serving and standard selected vitamin and mineral counts. The Nutritional Panel, as it currently stands, doesn't give the full story, either. When reviewing two nutritional panels and focusing on calories, a group of consumers selected low-fat milk and diet soda as equally healthy. Because the label doesn't include all the nutrients in a food, it is possible to view the more nutrient dense food as less nutritious; as an example, compare the labels on meat and Butterfingers. The Butterfingers candy had more nutrients listed on its label because the nutrients in meat are not part of the required listings on a label. Last September, the Department of Agriculture and the USDA held a conference to look more closely at nutritional labeling to see whether it would be possible to determine labels that more closely reflect the true nutritional value of a food.

Until such time, labels are what we have to use, but they must be read completely and carefully. Reading more than the call outs on the box is extremely important. There is no regulation covering how producers can spin the nutrient value of their product. Looking at three cereal boxes (one natural, one advertised for children and adults, and one advertised mainly to children) can tell a very different story about what is being eaten for breakfast. Which one of these would you pick for yourself or your family as the healthiest choice? Cereal A's call outs: fat-free, 10 vitamins and minerals, excellent source of iron.

Cereal B's call outs: Percent based on 2,000 calorie diet: 10 percent calories, 2 percent fat, 0 percent sodium, 24 percent fiber and 15 percent magnesium.

Cereal C's call outs: Smart Choices made easy, 0 grams trans fat, 100 percent natural, low fat.

Cereal A is the cereal marketed to children, Cereal B is the one marketed to children and adults, and Cereal C is the healthy adult cereal.

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