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Reading the Ingredients Fine Print : Consumers: A recent survey showed that American shoppers are split over whether food labels are too confusing.

November 24, 1989|CAROLE SUGARMAN | THE WASHINGTON POST

More than half of American shoppers have trouble understanding the ingredient and nutrition information on food labels, according to a survey conducted for the National Food Processors Assn.

The survey, released by the nation's largest association of food manufacturers, found that 11% of the country's primary food shoppers believe labels are either "not too" or "not at all" understandable, while 40% believe labels are "somewhat" understandable.

Information about preservatives and saturated fat was the most difficult to understand, according to respondents.

Forty-seven percent of those who participated in the survey said that the information on food labels is "very understandable." Two percent didn't know.

Viewing the approximate 50-50 split on the positive side, NFPA concluded that shoppers are not seriously confused about information on food packages.

Larry Graham, executive vice president of NFPA, said the results indicate that we "don't need wholesale reform of the food label," but rather that it needs to be "fine tuned."

The survey results come during an ongoing debate about revamping the food label, a discussion that has thus far taken place in Congress, the Food and Drug Administration and in the offices of food companies and consumer groups. Graham said that a crucial piece of data has been missing, namely a comprehensive survey of what the public thinks and wants.

An NFPA committee of food-company marketing and consumer-affairs executives devised the survey with Opinion Research Corp., a market-research firm in Princeton, N.J. The questionnaire surveyed 1,000 consumers nationwide.

Luther McKinney, senior vice president for law and corporate affairs at the Quaker Oats Co. and head of the committee responsible for the study, said that it "does confirm that there's less confusion" but added that "it depends on how you define confusion."

There's "still quite a need for reform. We're dealing with a different day and age. We need to give people what they need to know," he said.

Some of what consumers say they need is more information on the amount of cholesterol, fat, sodium and sugar in food products--and even more significantly, how those amounts relate to what they should eat.

For example, respondents who wanted more information on total fat wanted a breakdown of saturated and unsaturated fats, how much is recommended or healthful and the percentage of the recommended amount contained in a product.

"They want it in perspective," said James T. Heisler, vice president of Opinion Research.

NFPA's Graham said that a food label should tell people what's in a product but questioned whether it's the responsibility of food companies to "put it into context." Graham cited space restraints and said that a "label can't do everything," adding that it is the responsibility of schools and the government to help the public put the numbers into perspective.

Currently, food labels are required to list ingredients in descending order of weight. Nutrition information, the section of the label that lists calories etc., must be used if any vitamins, minerals or protein have been added, or if advertising or labeling contains a nutrition claim such as "low sodium."

Products that fit neither category aren't required to carry nutrition information, although a manufacturer may do so.

If nutrition labeling is used, the amount of calories, carbohydrates, fat, protein and sodium per serving must be listed, as well as the percentage provided of the U.S. recommended daily allowance for protein and seven vitamins and minerals. The amount of cholesterol and fiber and the breakdown of the types of fat are not required.

Among the survey's findings:

-- Approximately 80% of respondents either always or sometimes read food labels the first time they buy a product, and about 60% read them at other times. People who read food labels are most interested in sodium and fat content, and people who don't read them just aren't interested.

-- Half of the respondents say ingredient and nutrition information influence what they buy "a great deal." Cereal and canned foods are the two product categories for which that information has the greatest influence on purchase decisions. Snack foods and produce are the two product categories in which that information has the least influence.

-- More than half of those questioned didn't know that ingredients on a label are listed from the most to the least amount contained in the product.

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