The ABC to nutrition...

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Aiming to demystify the nutritional information on food labels
researchers have developed a new tool to help consumers in their
understanding. Education is also the key to lifing sales.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are using a tool they call "See it, Do it, Teach it" to help people learn how to interpret and calculate nutrition information on food labels and apply the knowledge to their own daily requirements.

"One of the goals of the project was to help particularly teenaged girls and menopausal women understand how they can get the daily requirement for calcium into their diet in order to help prevent osteoporosis,"​ said Karen Chapman-Novakofski, associate professor and nutritionist in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

Chapman-Novakofski and registered dietician Lisa Tussing in the Illinois division of Nutritional Sciences together developed an activity to help people have more confidence in understanding and being able to apply information on nutrition labels.

Chapman-Novakofski said food labels can be thought of in two parts: what you should limit - total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and perhaps total carbohydrates, and what you should try to get enough of in your diet, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron.

"Much more attention has been paid to what people should limit rather than the nutrients needed. The average consumer doesn't know, for instance, how much vitamin A 10 per cent of the daily value is," she commented.

The activity designed by the researcher and dietician involves three learning components. First, participants choose from an assortment of packaged foods and are taught how to read the nutrition label on it using the USDA's 'Guidance on How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Panel on Food Labels'​. Next, they do some simple maths problems in order to learn how the information relates to their own daily calorie and nutrient intake.

"In the third component, each participant 'taught' the rest of the class by sharing nutritional information about her product, including whether it was a good or excellent source of calcium,"​ said Chapman-Novakofski.

The 47 participants in the eight-week study were asked how much calcium they consume in their diet before and after the completing the activity.

"The post-test revealed that the participants significantly increased their calcium intake to 821 mg per day, up from 372 mg per day,"​ Full findings will be published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior​.

The study, although based in the US, also has implications for the food industry in Europe. Educating the consumer about labels could play a considerable role in boosting sales for the end food product, in particular those positioned in the health foods category.

But success in communicating the right message to the consumer will not simply rely on the labels alone, but involves a global effort from national governments to food industry bodies.

Working towards a common aim of improving information about health will reap the rewards, and perhaps in surprising segments of the food industry.

"Many participants were surprised to find out that there's calcium in cake mixes, frozen dinners, dry oatmeal, and soups,"​ said Chapman-Novakofski. "And questions about calcium in food servings led to other questions about the fat content of foods, how portion sizes are determined, and the difference between weight and volume of food portions."

In the UK this week the Food Standards Agency (FSA), outlining a five strategy on eating for health, said it would work with the government and industry to 'encourage people to choose a healthy diet, make healthy eating an easier option and help reduce diet-related diseases'.

"The Agency intends, for example, to work with health departments to reduce the average salt intakes of UK adults from the current 9.5g to 6g per day by 2010.

It also aims, by 2010, to reduce children's salt intake in line with recommendations from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. The recommendations range from less than 1g per day for babies aged 0-6 months to 5g per day for 7-10 year olds.

In influencing supply, the FSA intends by 2006 to establish targets for salt content for the ten food categories contributing most salt to the diet."

In addition, the FSA intends by 2005 to set up a programme of surveys of calorie, salt, fat and/or sugar content of foods and publish the results to 'help people make informed choices about food'.

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