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Will redesigning food labels help consumers revamp their eating habits?

A movement is underway to simplify food labels and, hopefully, make it easier for consumers to eat healthier.

A year ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration challenged food manufacturers to improve the quality of nutrition labeling. The industry responded in January with a plan to add key nutrition information on the front of packaging for processed foods and beverages. Some criticized producers' proposal for promoting so-called "positive nutrients," such as fiber, while quietly ignoring important health facts, like sodium levels.

In the midst of the debate comes "Rethink The Food Label," a contest sponsored by GOOD magazine and News 21 and aimed at spurring development of an easy-to-understand label design. Scienceline explains how the competition could help solve key problems with current food labels and packaging guidelines:

Rules governing the use of specific words vary. Eggs might be advertised as “free-range,” but the Department of Agriculture doesn’t define how large an outdoor area the chickens have access to, or how long they get to use it. Many get hardly more time in the sunlight than their caged counterparts. Likewise, “natural” has no restrictions on its definition; it sounds earth-friendly, but it’s meaningless.

Of course, the product’s complete nutritional information is available—in fact, it’s right there on the back of the box. Shouldn’t that be sufficient?

It isn’t. A 2006 study published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that most adults have trouble with nutrition labels: only 32 percent could correctly calculate the amount of carbohydrates in a bottle of soda. This doesn’t even address the really challenging problems, like understanding how a carbohydrate is processed by the body, and how it relates to overall health.

This, of course, is a problem the new food label contest could help solve. It’s imperative that buyers are able to decipher the contents of the foods they’re eating. A better nutrition label is essential—but first, of course, it has to be implemented.

Tomorrow marks the deadline for "Rethink the Food Label" submissions. Should be interesting to see what the contestants come up with — and if it prompts the FDA to take action.

Previously: “Organic” doesn’t necessarily mean “good for you”, 40 years of changes in our food and Organic vs. natural: Tips for parents who want to go green
Photo by Jeff Keen

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