Can Shoppers Judge a Snack by Its Label? Usually Food-Labeling Law Has Been Key to Improved Nutrition Reporting, US Study Says

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For Peter Paul Mounds lovers, sorry, there really are 190 calories in that dark chocolate-coated coconut bar.

That's the good news - or bad news, depending on how you look at it - in a recent Food and Drug Administration study. It found that, in fact, there is truth in those little package labels you peek at before ripping into a bag of munchies.

FDA food police descended on grocery stores across the US for samples of 300 of Americans' favorite foods - from Del Monte fruit cocktail to Wonder hamburger buns. Some 2,000 lab tests later, the FDA had its result: Nutrition labels that list calorie, fat, protein, carbohydrate, and other nutrients are accurate 91 percent of the time. That's up from 87 percent in 1994, when such information was first required and checked. The results represent a victory for proponents of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, passed in 1990 to give consumers consistent and understandable information about the foods they eat. The surveys also benefit the food industry by acting as a check on fair competition, says the FDA, America's top cop of truth-in-labeling. So, which labels may need adjusting? The Klondike bar, for one, which its maker advertises as "America's No. 1 selling ice cream bar." It sports a label that says 290 calories, but the FDA analysis puts the count at 550. It also has 30 grams of fat, according to the FDA, not 20 as the label reports. "There is a difference in the interpretation of the serving weight, so we are doing whatever possible to identify where the difference lies," says a spokeswoman for Good Humor-Breyers, maker of the ice cream treat. "We are very eager to rectify the situation." Still, overall results indicate widespread compliance with the 1990 law. "Consumers count on the food label to get reliable nutrition information," said Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services. "These results show that this confidence is well-placed." "The boost {in accuracy rates} from 1994 to 1996 confirms consumers can have confidence in nutrition labeling," agrees Robert Earl of the International Food Information Council here. …