Do you read labels?

You can learn a lot about food just by reading the reams of information on the label. Most of us don't.

You can learn a lot about food just by reading the reams of information on the label, but many of us don't bother.

OK, confession time: I rarely scrutinize the labels on food packaging. Occasionally, I’ll glance at the Nutrition Facts label; I almost never look at the ingredient list.

That’s terrible, because given my background writing about food and nutrition, I know better. It turns out I’m not alone. According to Food & Drug Administration studies, in 2002 (the most recent numbers available) nearly 20% of all American consumers, and 30% of consumers under 35, “never” read food labels when purchasing products for the first time. That was up from 13% in 1994. Hmm, so as manufacturers were required to squeeze more information on labels, fewer customers were actually reading them.

The FDA wants to remedy that and is planning a voluntary consumer Internet survey to find out why people are so reluctant to use the information that’s available to them.

When it comes to items like bread, claims on the front of the package are often undermined by what’s revealed by the ingredient list.

So now I’m going to preach what I rarely practice. Your best bet to know what’s in your food is to examine Nutrition Facts label and the ingredient list. The Nutrition Facts label offers basic info, like serving size, caloric, fiber, sodium, and other content. Keep in mind that “serving size” may not be an accurate reflection of what you’re likely to eat. For example, last night my mate picked up a 5-ounce bag of Kettle New York Cheddar with Herbs potato chips, to which we are addicted. Of course, the two of us plowed through the whole thing. In a case of forensic nutrition, I’m looking at the Nutrition Facts label right now, only to learn that the bag contains 5 (1-ounce) servings at 150 calories a pop. We each gobbled roughly 2 1/2 servings, or about 375 calories. Looks like I could use a Nutrition Anonymous support group (“Hi, I’m Alison A., and I don’t read Nutrition Facts labels until it’s too late…”).

Of course, the Nutrition Facts label is only part of the story. As Nourish Network founder Lia Huber points out, you have to read the ingredient list if you want to know what’s inside. As she notes, using bread as an example, claims on the front of the package are often undermined by what’s revealed in the ingredient list.

Yep, and it also helps to read the labels before you rip open the package to dig in.