Americans are overweight, but they do read food labels

Monday, July 3, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Oh, the irony. A nation full of overweight people is also full of label readers. Nearly 80 percent of Americans insist they check the labels on food at the grocery store.

They scan the little charts like careful dieters, looking for no-nos such as fat and calories and sugars.

Yet even when the label practically screams, "Don't do it!" people drop the package into the cart anyway. At least that is what 44 percent of people admitted in a recent AP-Ipsos poll.

So attentive, yet so overweight. Two-thirds of people in the United States weigh too much. Why, then, don't labels make a difference? Why do people bother with them at all?

"I don't know, force of habit. I want to see what I'm getting myself into," says Loren Cook, 39, of Marysville, Wash. "It doesn't make my buying decisions for me. It's mostly a curiosity factor."

He adds: "It's got to taste good. Otherwise, there's no point."

The survey of 1,003 adults, conducted May 30 to June 1, found:

* Women check labels more frequently than men, 65 percent versus 51 percent. Women also place more importance on nutrition content, 82 percent to 64 percent.

* Married men are more likely to check labels than unmarried men, by 76 percent to 65 percent.

* Younger people are more likely to look at calories on food labels. In the poll, 39 percent of people between age 18 and 29 said they look at calories first. Even so, 60 percent of younger people were more likely to buy foods that are bad for them even after they checked the label.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Are these avid label-readers really telling the truth?

People do exaggerate, said Robert Blendon, professor at Harvard's School of Public Health. They tell pollsters they go to church and vote more often than they really do, he said.

He does believe most people do look at labels. They just do not use labels to lose weight, he said. Instead, diabetics use it to avoid sugars, or people with high blood pressure steer clear of sodium.

"It's not being used as part of a total diet to really lower their weight," Blendon said.

To help people lose weight, Blendon said, labels should state the number of calories in an entire package. Instead, labels list calories per serving, leaving shoppers to do the math.

Consider ice cream. A pint might list 260 calories in a serving. Scarf down the whole container, and that is four servings, 1,040 calories, half the calories probably needed in a single day.

The current food label became standard in 1994. Since then, the number of overweight people in the U.S. has risen from 56 percent to 66 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Consider another trend: People eat more of their meals at restaurants, where they often cannot find nutrition labels. A recent government report says people consume one-third of their calories away from home.

"We can't assume that better packaged food labels are going to solve our problem," said Alice Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition at Tufts University.

The federal report said restaurants should promote healthy choices and offer more of them. It also gave an explanation for the lack of nutrition information at restaurants -- the cost, which can run from $11,500 to $46,000 to analyze all the offerings on a menu.

The government is considering changes to packaged food labels to make them easier to understand.

-- The Associated Press

Tammy Fultz, 45, thinks labels are plenty good now. She checks whenever she shops for groceries and avoids artery-clogging trans fat.

"But none of that really matters," said Fultz, who lives in Independence, Ky. "In the end, you still eat way more than you should and exercise way less than you should."

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