by Ann M. Colford

I walk through the supermarket looking for some kind of quick snack to tide me over until dinnertime. My eye falls on the box of microwave popcorn. Bright yellow letters in an orange marquee scream out to me, "Movie Theater Butter!" I stop to consider it. After all, I reason, popcorn is really a pretty healthy snack -- low in fat, high in fiber and still identifiable as a natural product -- and the thought of buttery, salty theater-style popcorn makes my mouth water. I grab the package off the shelf, but before I can put it in my basket, I feel compelled to check out the nutritional label. And I discover some unpleasant surprises.

The nutrition facts given on the label refer to a serving size that's equal to about one-third of a bag. If I eat one-third of a bag of this popcorn after it's popped -- and what are the odds that I'll stop there, I ask -- I will have consumed 180 calories. Now, that's not too bad, considering that the average recommended adult diet consists of 2,000 calories per day. But as usual, the devil is in the details. Out of those 180 calories, 110 of them -- a whopping 61 percent of the total -- come from fat. That's 13 grams of fat or 19 percent of my total fat allotment for the day. The 300 milligrams of sodium per serving mean that I'd be consuming 12 percent of my recommended limit of 2,400 milligrams just in this one snack, assuming, again, that I stopped after one-third of a bag.

On the positive side, the popcorn contains no cholesterol, and each serving does provide three grams of dietary fiber, or 10 percent of what's recommended daily. But I decide I just can't afford all those fat grams, so I reluctantly put the box back on the shelf and select some baked potato chips instead. The lowdown on the baked chips? They weigh in at 110 total calories per one-ounce serving (about one-fourth of the bag), 1.5 grams of fat, adding up to 15 fat calories, and only 160 milligrams of sodium. Plus, they'll give me two grams of dietary fiber, only one gram less than the popcorn.

The required nutritional labeling on food products is chock full of information like this to guide shoppers, but reading the labels takes time, and some may argue that it's a lot of work when you're just trying to pick out a snack. In fact, it's more work than 75 percent of Americans are willing to invest, says Linda Massey, a professor of human nutrition at WSU-Spokane.

"Studies show that about 25 percent of the population use nutrition labels regularly to shop and compare products," Massey says. "More women than men use labels, and the demographics trend toward the more highly educated as well." What's unclear from the studies Massey has seen is whether that label reading has affected consumer choices.

reading the label

Current nutrition labels on food are governed by a law that's more than a decade old, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food producers and retailers and provides administration and enforcement of the law. The key changes brought about by this legislation required food producers to convey information about the nutritional content of their products to consumers in a way that is easy to read and comprehend. The label must also help the public understand the significance of a particular food's nutritional value in the context of an average daily diet. This was a big change, says Massey. "Before the 1990 law, not much [labeling] was required except for the ingredients list," she says. "At least now the information [about nutritional content] is available, if people want to take advantage of it."

Although the law passed in 1990, food producers had until 1994 to comply with the new labeling requirements, and Massey says the rule-makers have been tweaking it ever since. There are exceptions to the law -- for small producers and for products with only one ingredient and no calories -- but generally all pre-packaged foods sold in supermarkets must contain a list of ingredients (in order by quantity) and a breakdown of the nutritional content. The requirements for fresh meats and produce, along with bakery items produced on site, are different and in some cases rely on voluntary compliance.

The top section of the updated label is called the Nutrition Facts panel, and the FDA has established rules for what information should appear here. The goal of the Nutrition Facts panel is to provide the consumer with information about the total calories, fat content, cholesterol, dietary fiber and specific nutrients in a standardized serving of the product.

The first section of the label lists the serving size and number of servings per package. The 1990 law requires producers to use relatively standard serving sizes based on typical household measurements and the amounts of a given food people typically eat at one time, with some compromise allowed based on easy divisions of the product. In the microwave popcorn example, the standard serving size is three tablespoons of unpopped product, which translates into about four cups popped. The FDA has given producers the option of providing nutritional information in addition to the required values, so the food producer in this case added information for an even smaller serving size -- one cup of popped product.

The FDA recommends paying close attention to the serving size and comparing it to how much you actually expect to eat. The quantities of calories and nutrients listed in the next section are based on the serving size, so if you're really eating two or three times the serving size, you'll be doubling or tripling the calories, fat, and nutrient values.

Total calories per serving appear on the next line, along with how many of those calories come from fat. The American Dietetic Association recommends that adults get no more than 30 percent of their total calories from fat, so these numbers give a quick summary of how the food product measures up in this area. Again, in the popcorn example, 110 out of 180 total calories come from fat, which calculates out to 60 percent or more than double the recommendation. Now, even dietitians say that not every single food has to meet that 30 percent standard, as long as the overall total for the day does not exceed 30 percent. So the label information can be used to plan how this particular food product fits into one's totals for the day.

In the next section, the label provides more details about specific nutrients, including those that most Americans consume in adequate or excessive quantities (fats, cholesterol, sodium) and those that are often deficient in the American diet (dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron). For fats, cholesterol, sodium and dietary fiber, the label lists the actual quantity by weight per serving of each nutrient. This is the place to find out how many grams of fat or milligrams of sodium are in each serving of the product. Without doing a little bit of math, these numbers may mean very little to the casual consumer. That's where another of the 1990 label innovations, the Percent Daily Value (%DV) column, comes in.

In the %DV column, the food producer does the math to make the nutrient amounts meaningful in the context of the recommended daily diet. The FDA used 2,000 calories per day as the reference amount for Daily Values in its labeling rules. Within those 2,000 calories are recommended amounts for nutrients listed on the labels. The %DV column shows the consumer how much of the recommended daily amount of each nutrient -- as a percent of the daily total -- is contained in a serving. As a general rule, anything under 5 percent is considered low, while amounts above 20 percent are considered high.

changes being considered

Although the current FDA labeling regulations have been around for more than 10 years, there are no major changes or additions planned at the moment, says Massey. "There was a huge study done at the time when the changes were made in 1990," she says, "and the conclusion was that more information might be an overload." So, she says, look for refinements and relatively minor changes in the labels rather than any big overhaul to the system.

Still, despite the tweaking, not everyone is happy with the labels the way they are. For example, new information has come to light in recent years about the effects of trans-fatty acids -- or trans fats -- and their link to disease.

"These trans-fatty acids behave like saturated fats in the body," says Massey. "But because they are not saturated fats, producers haven't had to list them on the label even though they can increase cholesterol levels."

Currently, the only way to know if a product contains trans-fatty acids is to study the ingredient list. "Trans fats occur in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, plus there are naturally occurring trans fats in some dairy products," Massey says. The FDA is now working on new rules to add data on trans fats to the Nutrition Facts Panel.

One area of the label that has seen very little attention over the past decade is the ingredient list, a requirement that's been on the books since the early-1970s. Food producers must list a product's ingredients in order by quantity, but no additional details are necessary, and food producers are reluctant to give out information that might help a competitor. "If they gave amounts, then it would constitute a recipe, and that's considered a trade secret," Massey explains. Still, consumer groups and advocates for the more than four million Americans who suffer from severe food allergies are pressing for clearer and more accurate listings of ingredients.

One of the biggest issues for people with food allergies is the presence of allergens in food when those substances don't show up in the list of ingredients. This can happen due to vague or confusing naming of ingredients (such as caseinate, a milk product) or cross-product contamination, when multiple food items are produced in the same manufacturing facility. In 1996, the FDA and the National Food Processors Association jointly developed a voluntary allergen labeling program to disclose the presence -- or possible presence -- of known allergens in food products, and the FDA has been updating its compliance policies and investigator training in the area of food allergens.

For the past year, the FDA has been conducting informational meetings around the country where people with food allergies have given first-hand accounts of their experiences including cases of anaphylactic shock. This year, the FDA is focusing on the eight most common food allergens -- milk, eggs, fish, wheat, tree nuts, peanuts, soybeans and crustaceans (such as shrimp and crab) -- which together account for more than 90 percent of allergic reactions in the United States. The government plans to work with food producers and consumer advocates to improve the clarity of labeling products containing known or suspected allergens.

Misleading Packaging

What about the other side of the ingredients list -- when a product's packaging implies ingredients that aren't really there? The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently published a list of deceptive products in its online newsletter, including a "Strawberry Melon Fruit Beverage" that contains no strawberries; a carrot cake mix that contains less carrot than salt; "Peaches & amp; Cream" instant oatmeal that contains no peaches; and instant noodles with shrimp that promise "More Shrimp" but deliver no more than a twentieth of an ounce when rehydrated.

The CSPI is pushing for more stringent labeling requirements, similar to those in place in the European Union and Thailand, that would force food producers to disclose the percentages for ingredients that are in the name of the food or are emphasized on the package. The organization also found many examples of ingredients lists that were produced in hard-to-read all-caps typefaces or hidden beneath folds of packaging.

Despite some of the problems that remain with food labels, human nutrition professionals like WSU's Linda Massey see the labels as an important public health tool. "I would encourage people to look at the labels and use the information there to compare products," she says. "For example, if you're choosing between two kinds of bread, then check the nutritional information on the labels and pick the one that's the healthiest, as long as it's something you'll eat."

Once a person does the initial work of reading labels and selecting a product that's both healthy and tasty, then the work is done until a new product comes along, Massey says. And not even Massey suggests that anyone should get too obsessive about reading labels. "No one uses them to plan their whole diet," she says. "Not even dietitians. Not even me. I check out the labels generally, but I don't use them to plan everything." A moderate approach is best, she says. "The labeling allows the public to compare the product's nutritional value to what's recommended," she says, adding that even a little bit of label reading is better than none at all.

"If we can get more than 25 percent of people to read the labels, even if we just get up to 26 percent, that will be a good thing."

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