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    Can't Read Food Labels? You're Not Alone

    A friend and I were just talking about food labels. Don’t they drive you CRAZY? I hate it when I’m half-way through a bag/bottle/package of something that I think is 100 calories, and for some reason I look at the label a second time. Closer than the first time I glanced at it, right before I ripped it open and began to chow down…

    Hmmm… There are HOW MANY servings in this bag/bottle/package??? What the heck? There are 2.5 servings in here? Does anyone out there actually have 1 and a 1/2 friends they share a snack with? If you do, will you please drop me a line (and a picture) telling me about that friend? Because I want to see that!

    As reported in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, dietary information presented in food labels may be “well beyond” individual’s ability to understand, especially those with lower math skills.

    In a study from June 2004 to April 2005, 200 primary-care patients (average age 43, 72% women) from a wide socioeconomic range, filled out a Nutrition Label Survey. The survey was designed with input from registered dietitians, primary care physicians, and authorities in health literacy and numeracy.

    At first glance most patients (89%) felt the food labels were a snap. Yet on average, only 69% of them answered food-label questions correctly. And broken down, even that figure turned out to be misleading.

    First the participants completed standardized math and reading tests; 68% of these individuals had some college education and 75% of them had at least a high school education.

    Among these participants’ results, 77% had at least 9th grade reading skills, but only 37% had 9th grade math skills. The results of the food label reading portion of this study reflected this math deficiency. For example, slightly less than 1/3 of the patients (32%) could calculate the number of grams of carbohydrate (67.5) consumed from a 20-ounce bottle of soda that contained 2.5 servings (total carbohydrates per serving = 27 grams).

    Only 60% of patients could determine the number of carbohydrates consumed if they ate half a bagel, when the serving size was a whole bagel. In a summary of the nutrition questionnaire errors, the researchers said there were 970 errors in the subjects’ responses to the first 12 items on the questionnaire. Frequent errors included misapplication of the serving size (325 errors), confusion due to extraneous material on the food label (369 errors), and incorrect calculation (276 errors).

    Those individuals who did the best on the questionnaire tended to have a higher income and educational level, and to score better on the standardized tests for reading and math ability.

    According to the researchers, the FDA is considering changes to food labels, with the aim of improving comprehension. In the meantime the researchers strongly recommend that individuals who need to understand food labels in order to self-manage chronic illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure be referred to a registered dietitian for assistance. These health care professionals have the time, resources and training to assist patients to understand food labels.

    If you feel that you have difficulty reading food labels and would like to improve your own understanding, ask your primary care provider to refer you to a clinical dietitian for assistance. It is usually paid for by insurance, as long as there is a documented reason, such as high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes, high cholesterol levels, a need for weight loss or other documented concern.


    Primary source: American Journal of Preventive Medicine
    Source reference:
    Rothman, RL, et al, “Patient Understanding of Food Labels: The Role of Literacy and Numeracy,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2006; 31 (5): doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2006.07.025

    Related Topics: WebMD Video: Decode Labels and get Supermarket Savvy, Learn to Decipher “Nutrition Facts”

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