Confused consumers have already begun lining up for some of the "supermarket savvy" label-reading tours being offered around the Southland. They've discovered that until the Food and Drug Administration's proposed restructuring of food labeling laws goes into effect next year, they will have to become "label literate" if they hope to make healthful selections in the supermarket.
That's because under current regulations, food labels may, in addition to the ingredient list, contain health claims that may or may not be intentionally deceptive. And, with more than 20,000 different items confronting shoppers today and only about 60% of them carrying nutrition labels, according to FDA, it is important for consumers to have a working knowledge of some of the terms they will find on products on supermarket shelves so they can make purchases based on actual nutrient values--not on manufacturers' claims.
With the new plan, the agency hopes to bring consistency to food labels and reduce the amount of confusion felt by American consumers. If its proposals are approved, FDA will supply manufacturers with specific guidelines for what is permissible on product packaging and require that a company's health message be supported by strict scientific evidence.
FDA will require that saturated fat, cholesterol and fiber be listed by grams. The number of calories derived from fat will also be provided on the nutrient label. Plus, FDA will develop procedures for standardizing serving sizes since consumers often make comparisons among products without considering differences in proportions.
In the meantime, shoppers in today's marketplace are familiarizing themselves with some of the common misrepresentations found on food labels. For example, the use of light on a product can be a misleading claim because there is no regulated definition for the word. Foods displaying light can be loaded with fat calories, according to the American Dietetic Assn. In some instances, light refers to the texture or color of the product.
Another common distortion is the use of low cholesterol or cholesterol free on a product. Depending upon the usage, these phrases take direct advantage of the consumer who may not be aware that only foods of animal origin contain the substance. Many of the foods that make these assertions never contained cholesterol at all.
"The American public is bombarded with a confusing array of directives and advice about nutrition and health," according to ADA, whose 57,000 members comprise the nation's largest group of nutrition professionals. "It is important that the public have consistent and accurate information on food labels to be able to make informed food choices."
In a position statement supporting the FDA provisions, which will be released in next month's Journal of the American Dietetic Assn., the organization emphasizes that "health and nutrient content claims, whether on food labels or in advertising, must be based on scientific evidence . . . in the context of the total daily diet and should take into consideration both positive and negative effects of food components and nutrients."
The group added that since consumers are "preoccupied" with specific diseases and nutrients, health messages must convey the importance and function of total diet over time. Claims should not focus on individual foods; they should reflect prudent dietary recommendations, according to ADA.
"Health claim labeling should assist the public to integrate specific food products into a well-balanced diet, avoiding distortion of dietary habits and a preoccupation with specific diseases," the ADA statement said.
To help with label reading, here is a list of regulated definitions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and FDA. There also are words that have a general meaning but are not strictly enforced. A glossary of these terms is provided by the California Dietetic Assn.
Keep in mind that most processed foods must carry an ingredient label, although items such as ice cream, mayonnaise and catsup don't have them because all manufacturers are required by law to use the same basic ingredients. Optional ingredients do have to be listed, however.
Ingredient labels list all components of the product, by weight from most to least. The label will not tell how much of the item is used but it does give a relative amount.
Also, some ingredients can be hidden when called by another name. USDA can provide a list of some common terms for sugars, sodium and fats. And its booklet, "Shopping for Food and Making Meals in Minutes Using the Dietary Guidelines," can give additional information about label reading.
To order the booklet, send a check or money order for $3 to the Consumer Information Center, Department 70, Pueblo, Colo. 81009. Specify Item No. 174-V on the envelope. Make check payable to Superintendent of Documents.
To find the nearest supermarket tour, check the list that follows or contact the nutrition department of local hospitals.
Sodium claims: Products making sodium claims must show the milligrams of sodium per serving on the label.
Sodium free: less than 5 milligrams per serving.
Very low sodium: 35 milligrams or less per serving.
Low-sodium: 140 milligrams per serving.
Reduced sodium: 75% or greater reduction than regular product.
Unsalted, without added salt or no salt added: no salt added during processing to a food normally processed with salt.
Fat claims: USDA regulates label claims for the amount of fat in meat and poultry products.
Extra lean: no more than 5% fat by weight
Lean, low fat: no more than 10% fat by weight.
Light, lite and leaner: 25% or greater reduction in fat from the original product.
Cholesterol claims: Here are what current claims for cholesterol mean.
Cholesterol-free: Less than 2 milligrams per serving.
Low cholesterol: less than 20 milligrams per serving.
Cholesterol reduced: 75% less than the original product.
Less or lower cholesterol: reduced, but by less than 75%.
Calorie claims: Lower calorie claims are standardized as follows:
Low calorie: no more than 40 calories per serving, but if naturally low in calories the product cannot carry this label.
Reduced calorie: Calorie content of food is at least 1/3 lower than food it is compared to.
Diet, dietetic: Original has been changed in some way but not specifically low-calorie or low-fat. The change might involve fewer calories, less sodium or cholesterol or even a different type of sugar.
Lite or light claims: Except for meat and poultry there are not federal regulations governing the use of light and lite. The terms can refer to anything from the number of calories to the color of a food.
Starch, sugar and fiber claims: Starch, sugar and fiber are all carbohydrates. While total carbohydrates must be given on nutrition labels, manufacturers do not have to break them out further. Some manufacturers, however, do break out the carbohydrates. Sugar in cereals is one example.
Sugarless or sugar-free: Contains no sucrose (table sugar) but may contain calories from other sweeteners such as corn syrup, fructose (fruit sugar) or honey. These must be listed. Also found on artificially sweetened products or sugar alcohols such as sorbitol or mannitol.
Dietary Supplement: Products fortified with 50% or more of the U.S. recommended daily allowance.
Enriched: Some, but not necessarily all, of the nutrients lost in food processing have been added back into the product.
Fortified: Additional vitamins and minerals have been added during processing at levels sometimes higher than found in the food.
Fruit Drink: A drink that is 10% to 34% real juice and may contain sugar, water and flavoring.
Fruit-Flavored Drink: A drink that is less than 10% real juice.
Fruit Juice: 100% real juice.
High in Polyunsaturates: Although this product may have polyunsaturated fats, it does not have to have a specific ratio of polyunsaturated to unsaturated fats.
Imitation: Under FDA regulation, this term refers to a product that is not the real thing and is not as nutritious as the product it resembles.
Juice Drink: A drink that is not all juice but one that contains 35% to 69% real juice.
Natural: A USDA policy memo states that for meat and poultry, natural means the product contains no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or synthetic ingredients of any kind and is minimally processed. There is also no legal meaning for natural when used with baked goods, beverages or processed foods. A natural food can contain artificial ingredients.
Naturally flavored: The FDA requires that the flavoring in a naturally flavored product be the essential oil, extract or other derivative of a juice, spice, herb, root, leaf or other natural source. This does not guarantee that there are no artificial colors, preservatives or other additives.
New: Products regulated by the USDA which are new on the market or substantially changed can only use this claim for six months. The FDA has no regulation on this item but expects manufacturers to apply it reasonably.
No Preservatives: Foods which have no preservatives, but which may contain other additives such as sweeteners, emulsifiers or stabilizers, flavorings or colorings.
Non-alcoholic: Beer and wine with less than 1/2% alcohol.
Organic: A food derived from living organisms. There is no legal meaning or definition to this term.
Substitute: Foods that are not the real thing but are nutritionally equivalent to the food they are imitating.
Wheat: If whole-wheat is not the first ingredient on the label list, it is not a whole-wheat product.
Following is a list of supermarket tours being offered around the Southland. There are many others.
"Shopwise" is a free tour conducted by a registered dietitian from the Nutrition and Food Services Department of Little Company of Mary Hospital, Torrance. It features instruction on reading labels, identifying misleading nutritional information and making the best food choices in terms of fat, cholesterol, salt and sugar. Advance registration is required. For store location and registration, call (213) 543-5811.
"Armchair Supermarket Tour" is offered by Los Robles Regional Medical Center, 215 W. Janss Rd., Thousand Oaks. This course features a supermarket savvy videotape viewing and short course in label reading. It takes place in connection with a four-week cholesterol reduction course that will begin in April. Contact the Nutrition Clinic, (805) 379-5445.
"Supermarket safaris" are conducted by Sheryl Rosenberg Thouin, a clinical dietitian practicing in the west San Fernando Valley. For registration and store location of the monthly two-hour tours, call (818) 347-4760. Cost is $15 per person and hand-outs are part of the program.
Shopping Sense for Seniors is a supermarket tour conducted by the Senior Care Program of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, 8700 Alden Drive, West Hollywood. It features a registered dietitian. Call (213) 855-5454 for registration. Cost is $5 for Senior Care program members, $7 for non-members.
Por la Vida, a health education program for Latino women, sponsored by UC San Diego and San Diego State University, conducts bilingual tours of supermarkets that include label reading and product comparisons. For reservations contact: Bea Roppe at UCSD (619) 534-1406.