Making sense of food labels not that easy for some

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According to a recent survey many people in the United States are struggling to understand current food labels.

This fact has been verified by a study, one of the most rigorous ever conducted, to determine how well people comprehend the information provided on food nutrition labels.

The Nutrition Label Survey (NLS), designed with input from dietitians, primary care providers, and experts in health literacy and numeracy was produced in order to glean some idea of how much people understand of current nutrition labels.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center surveyed 200 primary care patients from a wide range of socioeconomic groups and found that a significant number of people lacked the skills to make any sense of what food labels mean.

One part of the NLS asked subjects to interpret food label details on carbohydrate or calorie content of an amount of food consumed, while the other part asked patients to choose which of two foods had more or less of a certain nutrient, giving patients a 50/50 chance to guess the correct food item.

Half of the survey questions involved products that were clearly labeled on their package as "reduced carb," "low carb," or designed for "a low carb diet."

Of the group of 200, sixty-eight percent had at least some college education, and 77% had at least 9th-grade level literacy skills.

However, 63% had less than 9th-grade numeracy skills.

Over 40% had a chronic illness for which specific dietary intervention is important (e.g., hypertension, diabetes), and 23% reported being on a specific diet plan.

Overall, patients correctly answered 69% of the NLS questions but only 32% of patients could correctly calculate the amount of carbohydrates consumed in a 20-ounce bottle of soda that had 2.5 servings in the bottle.

Only 60% of patients could calculate the number of carbohydrates consumed if they ate half a bagel, when the serving size was a whole bagel and only 22% of patients could determine the amount of carbohydrates in 2 slices of "low carb" bread.

Common reasons for incorrect responses included misapplication of the serving size, confusion by extraneous material on the food label, and incorrect calculations.

The researchers say that current food labels are particularly challenging for patients with poor literacy and numeracy skills and as a result this makes it difficult for patients to follow a good diet.

The team were particularly concerned about situations that involve interpretation and application of serving size.

According to study author Russell L. Rothman, MD MPP, of concern was that patients who were overweight and who had chronic illnesses where understanding labels might be particularly important, actually had a harder time reading labels than other people.

Rothman says there are many opportunities for health care providers to improve how they talk to patients about using food labels and following diets and there are also opportunities for the FDA to improve how food labels are designed in order to improve how patients take care of their nutrition.

An online poll by Harris Interactive and the Wall Street Journal, of 2,706 adults found half of Americans regularly read food labels to help them make informed choices about food with particular interested in fat, calorie and sugar content, while another third said they read food labels "sometimes" while 17 percent almost never read labels.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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