F.D.A.: More Americans reading food labels

by Eric Schroeder
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WASHINGTON — More than half of consumers “often” read ingredient and nutrition labels before they buy a product for a first time, according to the “2008 U.S. Health and Diet Survey” published March 2 by the Food and Drug Administration.

But even while the number of consumers reading labels has risen, the survey found a number of consumers remain skeptical of common industry claims such as “low fat,” “high fiber,” or “cholesterol free” that are often on the front of packages.

The survey of 2,500 adults from all 50 states and the District of Columbia is the tenth such study to be conducted by the F.D.A. since 1982.

At 54%, the number of consumers reading labels on their initial purchase marked the first time more than half said they “often” do so, and was up 10 percentage points from the 44% figure in 2002.

Among the consumers who said they read the nutrition label the first time they buy a product, two-thirds said they use the label “often” to check how high or low a food is in calories and in items such as salt, vitamins and fat. Meanwhile, 55% said they “often” use the label to get a general idea of the food’s nutritional content and 46% use the label to get calorie information.

The survey also examined consumers’ perceptions about the accuracy of nutrition labeling, with the degree of trust wide ranging. Forty-one per cent said they believe all or most of claims such as “low fat,” “high fiber,” or “cholesterol free” are accurate, while 56% said they believe that some or none of the claims are accurate. Meanwhile, 56% of consumers who have used the “0 grams of trans fat” claim to make a purchase believe all or most of the trans fat claims are accurate, while 42% said they believe some or non of the claims are accurate.

The study also was notable for its findings on how consumers compare diet with its impact on health. The per cent of those who know diet is related to heart disease increased to 91% in 2008 from 83% in 2002, and 62% mentioned fats as a factor related to heart disease, which compared with 53% in 2002. The same number of consumers — 81% — were able to draw a link between certain foods or drinks and their prevention of heart disease or heart attacks in both 2008 and 2002.

The number of consumers aware that trans fat in the diet may raise the risk of heart disease jumped to 62% in 2008 from 32% in 2004, while the number of consumers correctly identifying omega-3 fatty acids as beneficial to lowering the risk of heart disease rose to 52% in 2008 from 31% in 2004.
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