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Trying package labels so shoppers can find healthful foods

September 25, 2012|By Mary MacVean
  • Some labels that have been tried on food packages.
Some labels that have been tried on food packages. (Karen Tapia-Andersen /…)

Packaged foods can be hard – not to cook, necessarily, but to choose. Deciphering the many labels can be confusing, with nutritional information, claims such as “reduced fat” and advertising perhaps blending together among the many products on a shelf.

Researchers in this country and others have been working to find a system of icons to put on the front of packages to help shoppers sort through the cacophony to figure out which products are healthful. In a new study published Tuesday in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, researchers – from Yale and Cornell universities and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- found two styles of labels they said hold promise.

One of them is called the “multiple traffic light plus caloric intake” icon. It shows a picture with traffic light-like symbols in green, yellow or red to indicate high, medium or low levels of such ingredients as saturated fat, sugar or salt. The picture also includes calorie counts.

The other is called the “choices” icon. It is a simple check mark in a circle and says “healthy choice.” Foods would get that icon if they met independently set standards.

The researchers asked 480 people to select the healthier of two foods in 15 groups, using one of four kinds of package front labels and no label at all. And they were asked to rate products based on taste, healthfulness, how likely they were to buy it and other attributes. Two label styles were much more effective than the other two or no label.

But the researchers said their work suggests the need for more testing, not a conclusion.

In 1990, the federal government enacted a law requiring the nutrition facts labels that appear, often on the back, of packaged foods. The food industry has tried some front of package programs, including the highly publicized Smart Choices program. But so far, there is not one industry-wide program.

The choices label is used in some European countries, and a traffic light system is used in the United Kingdom.

Mary.MacVean@latimes.com

@mmacvean on Twitter

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