Navigating the Food-Label Maze ; American's Food Supply Is the Safest and Most Varied on the Planet. but Confusion Persists over What to Eat, How Much, and How to Judge Nutrition Facts against Manufacturers' Claims

By David Holmstrom writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 25, 2000 | Go to article overview

Navigating the Food-Label Maze ; American's Food Supply Is the Safest and Most Varied on the Planet. but Confusion Persists over What to Eat, How Much, and How to Judge Nutrition Facts against Manufacturers' Claims


David Holmstrom writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When Peggy Douglas enters her neighborhood Stop & Shop supermarket in Boston, she finds a shopping cart and heads down the aisle to do battle. For her, shopping is something of a food fight - or at least a shoving match.

As a conscientious consumer, she wants value, nutrition, taste, and safety from her food. She thinks the big problem complicating shopping is the corporate producers and marketers of food who tangle with federal regulatory agencies. "The labels and opinions are always changing," she says. "What is good now was bad 10 years ago."

She shakes her head, lifts a bag of dried beans from the shelf, and reads the label. She shrugs. "The only thing you can be sure of is green tea and olive oil," she says in a battle-weary voice.

Choosing products in the intensely competitive food world these days is more than just an exercise in reading labels. If a shopper wants to understand what a nutrition label really means, be prepared for a miniarchaeological expedition into nutrition and health assumptions.

Tens of thousands of new products

Since labeling began in 1994, answering such questions as: Can the label be trusted? What about portion size? Additives? Who regulates this stuff? has only become more difficult. New food products are coming on the market at a rate of between 30,000 and 35,000 a year, about five times greater than 25 years ago. As concern mounts about irradiated and genetically altered products, organic foods are now the fastest-growing segment of the food market, and diet supplements are as plentiful as potato chips.

A large supermarket today can have as many as 15,000 food items, each with a label. It's so competitive that many food suppliers have to pay controversial "slotting" fees to retailers to gain prime shelf space.

Label regulation, including health claims, is shared by two federal agencies: the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates food advertising.

Many economists praise the abundance as proof of a vigorous marketplace. The heavily regulated food system in the United States remains the standard-bearer for the world.

"We need as many brands as possible," says Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "Some people might call it clutter, but it means we have a greater variety than ever, and consumers vote with their money."

But whether the food-labeling system is user-friendly and trustworthy depends on understanding the assumptions and "language" behind the label, and sometimes reading between the lines.

"Despite its detractors," says Elizabeth Ward, a dietitian from Stoneham, Mass., "labeling does a good job. The percent of daily values is confusing to people, but it boils down to this: You should know what you need to eat and gauge the food against that."

The USDA has recommended "what you need to eat" by establishing the percent of "daily values," a measure of how many nutrients a serving contains in a daily diet.

Leading the list on the label is "serving size." The manufacturer, not a regulatory agency, determines the size of a serving. Often the sizes differ among similar products, making nutritional comparisons difficult. If the food serving has less than 5 percent of a certain nutrient, such as fiber or protein, it is considered to be low in that nutrient even while the food could be high in other nutrients. If a food has 10 to 20 percent of a nutrient, it is considered high, or "good."

For an exacting consumer, the only way to determine daily value derived from various foods would be to keep a tally after time- consuming comparative shopping. Complicating things further is the fact that fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats are not required to list nutrients on the label. …

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