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Nutrition labels: New system needed for average consumer

Editor’s note: The following column was written for the Nutrition and Food Policy course taught by Lorraine Cordeiro at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

On the back of every package of processed food, from crackers and cookies to canned soups, cereals, bags of spinach and frozen dinners, you will find a nutrition label.

The trouble is, it is hard to figure out what they are saying.

The labels are supposed to help us understand whether a product is healthy or nutrient-dense. They act as a medium to promote healthy eating in an era where diet-related diseases are highly prevalent. They are located on the back, side or front of food packages and since the 1970s, they have been regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The targeted audience, however, doesn’t seem to be the average consumer. As a person who is fairly educated on healthy food choices and enjoys eating healthfully, I have a hard time understanding what the labels mean. The black and white label is ambiguous, focusing on calories and serving sizes rather than the overall healthfulness of a particular food. Terminology like “saturated fats” and “trans fats” are difficult for most people to understand.

New York Times columnist Mark Bittman proposes using the traffic-light approach that has been adopted in Britain, as well as other parts of the world. It uses the familiar colors of green, yellow and red combined with symbols to represent levels of healthfulness. The label is highlighted on the front of the package, where the consumer can see it clearly. Other methods have been suggested, such as using stars. Of that idea, Alice Lichtenstein, a nutrition professor at Tufts University, says, “It’s interpretive. People don’t need to look at numbers or do any calculations to figure out what they mean. Three stars are better than no stars.”

Some stores have begun supplementing the standard nutrition label with their own, but that can add to consumer confusion. What we need is a clear and meaningful labeling system that is straightforward and helps consumers find healthful products on their stores’ shelves.

Laura Howell is a senior at Mount Holyoke College studying anthropology, with an interest in global food and agriculture policy.

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