Well Being

FDA Study Confirms What We All Know: Food Labels Confuse The Bejeezus Out Of People

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nutrition facts labels

It's tempting to laugh at the conclusion of a new study from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which basically amounts to: Reading food labels is hard, y'all.

But reading food labels is hard, thanks to the myriad marketing tricks food manufacturers employ to obfuscate how unhealthy products actually are. And who lets these labeling tricks stand? The FDA. It's nice to see the agency at least taking preliminary action that could lead to changes in food labeling requirements.

The study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that people were best at assessing the relative healthiness of a product when total numbers of calories and nutrients were shown, rather than counts broken down by portion sizes.

FDA researchers surveyed about 9,500 U.S. adults, who were shown one of 10 different types of food labels for things like chips and frozen meals. The labels all contained basic nutrition information – calories, fat, sodium, protein – but it was presented in different ways, including per serving, per container, and both.

Next up, the FDA “would like to see how these labels perform in a more realistic setting, such as in a grocery store, with actual packaged foods as opposed to large labels on a computer screen,” said the FDA's Serena C. Lo in a statement.

The nutrition facts label on packaged foods is a surprisingly recent development: Launched on Jan. 6, 1993, it turned 20 this month.

Here's the FDA's guide to “understanding and using” a food label, should you need a brush-up. My favorite food label tricks to remind people about are 1) “whole wheat” — unless it says 100% whole wheat, it's likely not (check to see if the first ingredient is whole wheat flour or “enriched flour” that contains a mixed of whole grain and white flour) and “0 grams trans-fats” — which means a product may still contain up to half a gram of trans fats per serving (check the ingredients for any sort of partially hydrogenated oil).