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Reading Between the Labels

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Nutrition Facts panels are mandatory on all food products sold in the United States. Everything else, while it might be regulated or monitored, is usually structured around promotional language scripted by the manufacturer.

This is especially true with whole health product claims - Low Fat! Omega 3! Bird Friendly! These pronouncements are the most obvious features on the package, and often are more easier for consumers to interpret than the percentages and grams and tongue-twisting ingredients listed on the backside.

What are shoppers reading? New research out from The Nielsen Company shows that more shoppers are reading labels. Nearly two-thirds — 65% — of U.S. consumers said they notice nutritional information on food packaging more often now compared to two years ago. That's good. Even better is the the 67% who stated they “mostly” understand the nutritional information they're reading.

chart.jpgThe chart at right lists the top items shoppers are checking for when they read labels. The report doesn't specify what these folks are reading — whether its the Nutrition Facts, on-pack claims or any of the assorted other tidbits printed on the box. Nielsen describes it as "nutrition labels."

I have no doubt they are scrutinizing packages more; but I doubt consumers truly understand how to decipher the words, symbols and numbers. For instance, do they realize that many packages contain two or more servings, and that the nutrition information applies to only one? Do they know all the names used for the various forms of high fructose corn syrup? Do they realize that low fat does not always mean low calorie?

Looked at from this point of view, one wonders if consumers would be as confident of their label-reading abilities as they were in the poll.

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