Confused consumers have already begun lining up for some of the "supermarket savvy" label-reading tours being offered around the Southland. They've discovered that until the Food and Drug Administration's proposed restructuring of food labeling laws goes into effect next year, they will have to become "label literate" if they hope to make healthful selections in the supermarket.
That's because under current regulations, food labels may, in addition to the ingredient list, contain health claims that may or may not be intentionally deceptive. And, with more than 20,000 different items confronting shoppers today and only about 60% of them carrying nutrition labels, according to FDA, it is important for consumers to have a working knowledge of some of the terms they will find on products on supermarket shelves so they can make purchases based on actual nutrient values--not on manufacturers' claims.
With the new plan, the agency hopes to bring consistency to food labels and reduce the amount of confusion felt by American consumers. If its proposals are approved, FDA will supply manufacturers with specific guidelines for what is permissible on product packaging and require that a company's health message be supported by strict scientific evidence.
FDA will require that saturated fat, cholesterol and fiber be listed by grams. The number of calories derived from fat will also be provided on the nutrient label. Plus, FDA will develop procedures for standardizing serving sizes since consumers often make comparisons among products without considering differences in proportions.
In the meantime, shoppers in today's marketplace are familiarizing themselves with some of the common misrepresentations found on food labels. For example, the use of light on a product can be a misleading claim because there is no regulated definition for the word. Foods displaying light can be loaded with fat calories, according to the American Dietetic Assn. In some instances, light refers to the texture or color of the product.
Another common distortion is the use of low cholesterol or cholesterol free on a product. Depending upon the usage, these phrases take direct advantage of the consumer who may not be aware that only foods of animal origin contain the substance. Many of the foods that make these assertions never contained cholesterol at all.
"The American public is bombarded with a confusing array of directives and advice about nutrition and health," according to ADA, whose 57,000 members comprise the nation's largest group of nutrition professionals. "It is important that the public have consistent and accurate information on food labels to be able to make informed food choices."
In a position statement supporting the FDA provisions, which will be released in next month's Journal of the American Dietetic Assn., the organization emphasizes that "health and nutrient content claims, whether on food labels or in advertising, must be based on scientific evidence . . . in the context of the total daily diet and should take into consideration both positive and negative effects of food components and nutrients."
The group added that since consumers are "preoccupied" with specific diseases and nutrients, health messages must convey the importance and function of total diet over time. Claims should not focus on individual foods; they should reflect prudent dietary recommendations, according to ADA.
"Health claim labeling should assist the public to integrate specific food products into a well-balanced diet, avoiding distortion of dietary habits and a preoccupation with specific diseases," the ADA statement said.
To help with label reading, here is a list of regulated definitions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and FDA. There also are words that have a general meaning but are not strictly enforced. A glossary of these terms is provided by the California Dietetic Assn.
Keep in mind that most processed foods must carry an ingredient label, although items such as ice cream, mayonnaise and catsup don't have them because all manufacturers are required by law to use the same basic ingredients. Optional ingredients do have to be listed, however.
Ingredient labels list all components of the product, by weight from most to least. The label will not tell how much of the item is used but it does give a relative amount.
Also, some ingredients can be hidden when called by another name. USDA can provide a list of some common terms for sugars, sodium and fats. And its booklet, "Shopping for Food and Making Meals in Minutes Using the Dietary Guidelines," can give additional information about label reading.
To order the booklet, send a check or money order for $3 to the Consumer Information Center, Department 70, Pueblo, Colo. 81009. Specify Item No. 174-V on the envelope. Make check payable to Superintendent of Documents.