AMERICANS' diets are just not improving and are, in fact, becoming worse, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (ERS).
A healthful diet is the result of a chain of decisions extending from food purchases to consumption, and many of those decisions are made in the grocery store, ERS said.
In the study, ERS researchers compared consumers' retail store food purchases between 1998 and 2006 with dietary recommendations in the "U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans."
They found that the allocations of food budgets — spending patterns — improved little between 1998 and 2006, except for a slight increase in spending for whole grains and a slight decrease in spending for refined grains (Figure).
The bad news is that they found that spending for fruits and vegetables decreased, each by 1.4%, while spending increased 3.2% for further-processed packaged foods and 1.0% for beverages.
Servings or packages?
The consumption part of the decision-making may be influenced by a lack of understanding and/or a lack of use of nutrition fact labels (panels) on foods, according to two nutritionists at the Food & Drug Administration.
The label was introduced more than 20 years ago in the Nutrition Labeling & Education Act of 1990 and provides consumers with important information, including serving size, number of servings per package, number of calories per serving and amount/percentage of nutrients per serving.
However, the FDA nutritionists said research has shown that consumers still tend to miscalculate calorie and nutrient consumption in foods in packages with two or more servings that are usually consumed in one eating occasion — e.g., consuming an entire bag of potato chips at once even though the bag contains two or three servings.
Amy M. Lando and Dr. Serena C. Lo suggested that this could be improved by: (1) a dual-column label that details information for both one serving and the total package and (2) a label that details information for just the total package.
They conducted an online study that involved more than 9,000 participants to measure the accuracy of consumers' understanding of the modified nutrition labels and their perceptions of the helpfulness and trustworthiness of the revised labels.
Three groups of labels were tested. The first group used versions of the customary single-column format for a food with two servings per package; the second group used versions of the dual-column format for foods with two servings per package, and the third group used the single-column format, but the nutrition information was listed as if the package were one large serving.
The study also evaluated changes in formatting such as enlarging font sizes for the declaration of calories or removing the label line concerning the number of calories from fat to determine if such changes could help consumers better understand how many calories are in a serving or a package.
Lando and Lo concluded that the participants could more accurately assess the number of calories and amount of fat and other nutrients per serving with a single-label format that provided information for the entire package and with a dual-label format that provided information per serving and per package.
This research "is just one step" in learning how potential label modifications could help consumers make better food choices and decisions, Lo said.
Ideally, the research should be extended to a more realistic setting in grocery stores with actual food packages rather than posting labels on computer screens, she said. The nutrition label is "one tool," but it's "a valuable tool" in encouraging consumers to make informed food choices and maintain healthy dietary practices, she said.
Meanwhile, another problem with consumers' understanding and use of labels might well be that there are too many labels, according to a number of reports, including one in the "Food & Beverage Litigation Update" published by Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Kansas City, Mo.
These range from various uses of the nutrition label — on the front, side or back of the package or in more than one place on the package — to a proliferation of "eco" or "pick me" labels that promote sustainable practices from antibiotic-free meat and pesticide-free corn to animal and worker welfare to even whether the farm or ranch from which a food originated does not kill predators or protects bees and birds.
The International Ecolabel Index has, in fact, counted 432 eco labels administered by government agencies, non-governmental organizations and industry groups that may or may not be subject to any oversight at all.
Anastasia O'Rourke of the Ecolabel Index said this "sea" of labels — symbols from bean sprouts to stop lights — has confused consumers to the point where they no longer pay attention to any label.
What's needed, according to a blog on National Public Radio, is an international move to weed out and standardize labels.
USDA has, in fact, weeded out one "label" by barring NuVal LLC from applying its nutrition "scoring system" to meat and poultry.
NuVal's system is based on a proprietary algorithm by which it ranks the nutritional value of foods on a score of one to 100 points, and the higher the score, the more nutritious the food. It's in place in more than 1,600 grocery stores in 31 states with 30 million shoppers every week.
However, the scoring system has raised several concerns that it's inconsistent with federal nutrition guidance and programs and further confuses consumers' nutrition decision-making. For instance, in many situations, it gives cookies and potato chips a higher score than canned fruits and vegetables.
NuVal responded that processed foods can be tricky to score, noting that canned fruits and vegetables can contain high levels of sodium and sugar. For example, NuVal said fresh and frozen peaches commonly receive a score of 99, but canned peaches score very low because they are packed in so much sugar.
The National Consumers League petitioned FDA — which has oversight responsibility for 80% of the food products in the U.S. — to stop the use of the system (Feedstuffs, May 28, 2012).
The league commended USDA for its decision and said the government needs to develop and support one universal, front-of-the-package labeling scheme so consumers can "get the clear and consistent information they need to make healthful dietary choices for their families."
Cargill Inc. recently announced an initiative to help food and beverage manufacturers and foodservice operations improve the nutritional profiles of their products for children.
Cargill said it would focus its food and food ingredient resources toward helping customers develop formulations with less saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugar and more whole grains, fiber and protein.
The company said it also is launching a website, www.childhood-nutrition.com, that will offer ideas for "formulation challenges that come in trying to develop good-tasting and healthful products for children."
Cargill said the website will connect manufacturers with updates about nutrition news, government policy, stakeholder actions and consumer trends.