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updated 9/22/2006 2:28:46 PM ET 2006-09-22T18:28:46

Is checking nutrition information on food labels like reading Japanese or Greek? Several surveys now show that most people claim to check nutrition labels when shopping, but may not use that information in making food purchases. Many shoppers don’t know how to interpret the data on labels, or how to use it to create an overall healthy diet.

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In a 2003 survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), 83 percent of people reported that they always or sometimes looked at ingredient or nutrition information. According to a 2004 survey by the Food Marketing Institute, a similar 83 percent said that they always or sometimes checked the Nutrition Facts panel when buying a food item for the first time. In a 2006 Associated Press poll, nearly 80 percent claimed to check food labels.

In the IFIC survey, people most often noted considering calorie and total fat content, followed by sodium, saturated fat, sugar, cholesterol and carbohydrates. Many consumers reported they were “aware” of the information on specific nutrients yet a far smaller percentage stated they used that information to decide about a purchase. Likewise, in the AP poll, 44 percent said that after reading the label they still chose foods that seemed unhealthy.

Look at serving size, not package size
IFIC held several focus groups in 2004 to probe more deeply into consumers’ attitudes and knowledge about food labels. Many people were confused about Daily Values listed on labels and said that nutrition information was too complicated, or required too much math. People in the focus groups seemed to base judgments about portions more on package size than on the serving size listed on the label.

In a 2006 Food and Health Survey by IFIC, more than half the participants reported trying to change their diet. Weight control and reducing calories were listed as top priorities. Although calorie content was identified as the most often checked nutrition information, 88 percent of participants were unable to accurately estimate their daily calorie needs, and 43 percent would not even guess. People were unsure whether total calories, fat calories, or carbohydrate calories are most significant for weight control. (It is total calories.)

What 'Daily Value' really means
When consumers check fat or sodium, they may be uncertain about how much is too much. Daily Values on labels, while apparently widely misunderstood, are meant to help. The “% of Daily Value” listing provides a quick tool: 5 percent or less of DV means a food is relatively low in a nutrient, while 20 percent or higher of DV means a food is relatively high.

Another problem is that shoppers may be using food labels to screen out what not to eat, but then find themselves uncertain of what to eat to create a healthful diet. For example, while the nutrition label may help us choose the most nutritious crackers, it doesn’t show how those crackers fit into overall healthful eating.

Whether your goal is lower risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or better overall health, experts agree on the basic eating pattern. The American Institute for Cancer Research offers an easy model — the New American Plate. Aim to fill no more than a third of your plate with meat, poultry or fish, and two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Researchin Washington, D.C.

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