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FDA: Better food labeling could stem obesity

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Can improved labeling on food products help consumers make healthier choices? A new study by the Food and Drug Administration shows that it can. The FDA is in the process of updating the 20-year-old nutrition facts label that appears on all food and beverage products in the U.S. 

The organization’s researchers believe that improved labels may assist consumers in making healthier decisions about the food they buy.

The FDA commissioned the study as part of the action plan for its Obesity Working Group. The researchers' goal was to determine whether modifying the key elements of the nutrition facts label might help consumers better understand the nutrition label  , and in turn make more healthful decisions while purchasing and eating food.

“Survey research conducted by the FDA has shown that consumers have come to rely on the food label to determine the nutritional content of the food they eat. In fact, the percentage of consumers who report that they often read a food label the first time they purchase a food rose from 44 percent in 2002 to 54 percent in 2008,” said Amy M. Lando, who co-led the study along with Serena C. Lo, Ph.D., also of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park, Md.

To test the effectiveness of different labels, researchers created one new label that used two columns to display the nutritional details for a single serving of a product alongside the details for the entire package. The researchers also created labels that only displayed nutritional information for the entire package, rather than using the method of citing per-serving nutritional information.

“In particular, we were interested in studying products that have two servings per container but that are customarily consumed in a single eating occasion,” said Lando.

Lando uses the example of a muffin, which is traditionally eaten in one sitting, but may have a label that shows nutritional information for two servings. She says that consumers aren’t fond of using math to decipher the label on such products, and that even when they do try to determine how many calories are in an entire package of food, they often make mistakes.

The research showed, however, that consumers had an easier time assessing how many calories or how much fat was in a package of food when reading the new labels created for the study, particularly the labels that displayed nutrients for the whole package instead of per serving.

“The nutrition facts label is only one tool that can help consumers make informed food choices and maintain healthy dietary practices, but it is a valuable tool, so it's important to continue exploring ways to support effective use of the label for these purposes," said Lo.

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