Understanding food labels

Friday, October 21, 2011 - 12:56pm

Cruising through the grocery store yields a dizzying array of food choices to decipher company claims about fat and sugar contents. The Institute of Medicine has proposed a standardized icon system that would go right on the front label of food packaging.

It's intended to help consumers make quick and hopefully healthy choices.

Ellen Wartella, Ph.D. at Northwestern University says "what we're really looking at is the equivalent of an Energy Star system for foods and beverages."

Dr. Ellen Wartella of Northwestern University chaired the committee that devised the proposed system. Each and every food product would be able to earn up to 3 points if it has lower-than-recommended levels of sodium, saturated and trans fats and added sugar.

Ellen Wartella, Ph.D. says "we're really looking at those nutrient components that are most associated with chronic diseases."

The Centers for Disease Control reported Thursday that a majority of Americans exceed the daily recommended amount of dietary sodium, increasing the risk for heart disease. But most of the salt we consume does not come from a shaker.

Amanda Holliday a dietitian at the University of North Carolina says "most of the sodium in our diets come from processed foods."

The American Heart Association put its own stamp of approval on the proposed system, but said in a statement that until a single icon system is established, "competing health-related icons will continue to proliferate in the marketplace."

Amanda Holliday says "I, like many consumers, walk into a grocery store, and we're bombarded with choices."

Already in many stores is the Grocery Manufacturer Association's "facts up front" labeling system. It lists the calories, fat, sugar and sodium content in each serving. It's expected to be on all packaging next year.

The Institute of Medicine's proposed icon system must be researched and approved by the Food and Drug Administration. No word on when it might hit store shelves. With the proposed government labeling system, it would still be up to consumers to look at the "nutrition facts" label for details of a product's fiber, whole grain, and vitamin content.

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