Nutrition Labels Confuse Consumers

Many make mistakes in reading and calculating, study finds

TUESDAY, Sept. 26, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Many people don't have the reading and math skills to correctly interpret the nutrition labels on food packages, a new study finds.

People need to be better educated about how to read food labels, but labels also need to be redesigned to deliver the information in a way that is easier to understand, the researchers said.

The report was published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

"Even though most people told us that they read food labels on a regular basis, people have a hard time understanding food labels," said study author Dr. Russell L. Rothman, an assistant professor at the Center for Health Services Research at Vanderbilt University. "Food labels are pretty complex pieces of information, particularly the nutrition panel on the side of the food label."

In the study, researchers surveyed 200 primary-care patients. The participants, who came from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, were given standardized reading and math tests. They were also given a nutrition label survey, which asked them to interpret food labels. It also measured their comprehension of food nutrition labels.

Participants were asked to choose which of two foods had more or less of a certain nutrient. Half of the questions used products clearly labeled as "reduced carb," "low carb," or designed for "a low-carb diet."

Among the participants, 68 percent had some college education, and 77 percent had at least ninth-grade level literacy skills. However, 63 percent had less than ninth-grade math skills. Most participants said they used food labels and found them easy to understand, the researchers report.

"However, we found that a lot of people have a hard time understanding the label and make mistakes when trying to interpret the label," Rothman said. "This can lead to people grossly overestimating or underestimating how much they are taking in of certain nutrients."

Overall, patients correctly answered 69 percent of the nutrition survey questions, Rothman's team found. But, only 32 percent 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 percent could calculate the number of carbohydrates consumed if they ate half a bagel when the serving size was a whole bagel.

In addition, only 22 percent could figure out the amount of net carbohydrates in two slices of low-carb bread, and only 23 percent could determine the amount of net carbohydrates in a serving of low-carb spaghetti.

The reasons most people gave for these misunderstandings were that they did not understand the serving size information; they were confused by extraneous material on the label, and they calculated incorrectly.

Doctors, dietitians and other health-care providers should do a better job of explaining food labels to their patients, Rothman said. Food manufacturers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should also work to make food labels easier to understand, he added.

"The labels are pretty dense," Rothman said. "There are opportunities to make them a little easier for people to understand." Serving sizes should be made clearer, and extraneous information should be removed from the label, he said.

These changes and others would make things more understandable, especially for people who are on a particular diet, Rothman noted. "If you really have a hard time understanding the labels, let your doctor know and he can help you by suggesting ways to eat that don't require you to understand all the information on the label," he said.

One expert thinks that the way nutrition facts are conveyed to consumers needs to be revamped.

"Interpretation of nutrition labels requires both reading and math skills, and the combination is in short supply," said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "The questions posed to the participants in the study could be directly answered from information on the label itself, by anyone knowing how to find it," he added.

However, the question consumers truly need to answer is whether a product is good for their family, Katz said. "This question cannot be answered by anyone relying on the nutrition facts panel. So even intelligent, committed people can be mislead by marketing claims on the package," he said.

"We need an objective assessment of the overall nutritional quality of foods," Katz said. "We need that translated into simple, interpretable-at-a-glance symbols on the front of every packaged food. And we need it applied to chain restaurant meals, too."

More information

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration can tell you more about nutrition labels.

SOURCES: Russell L. Rothman, M.D., assistant professor, Center for Health Services Research, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor, public health, and director, Prevention Research Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; November 2006, American Journal of Preventive Medicine
Consumer News