Nutrition Notes

Labelman To the Rescue

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Confused about the unsaturated fat content of your food? The serving size? The meaning of "% DV"? Labelman can help. A cartoon creation of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, the Web-based tool (available at{tilde}ear/hwm/labelman.html) was recently launched to coach consumers through the often perplexing landscape of federally mandated food labeling.

Through a series of short, animated questions and answers, Labelman shows how to read a food label to determine serving size, fat, calcium or fiber content -- or the real bottom line on calories. He even unlocks the true meaning of that inscrutable hieroglyph -- the % DV (or percent of Daily Value).

Help wanted Seems we need the help. A study last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that almost 90 percent of consumers surveyed "had at least some trouble understanding current food labels."

Food labels are "complex" and "dense" with information, making them challenging for all consumers but especially for those with low literacy levels, says lead study author Russell Rothman, director of the Effective Health Communication Program at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "Poor understanding of the food label can lead to over- or underestimating how much one consumes,"Rothman says, which can, in turn, lead to poor nutrition and contribute to obesity. Miscalculation could be potentially harmful for those with chronic conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, who need to monitor their intake of certain nutrients, he says.

Easy for you Even Labelman may talk over the heads of some people with lower math and literacy skills, Rothman says. Such people, he says, "already find the Internet a bit challenging to use, and I am afraid that the current tool will be very challenging for them." Though he calls the education effort laudable, he adds, "I think the FDA also needs to consider making changes to current food labels to make them easier for the average consumer to understand."

-- Ranit Mishori

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