Are you among the half of Americans who say they check the nutrition labels on packaged foods when shopping? If you can read the information without a magnifying glass, do you understand what the many numbers mean to your health?

Do you look only at calories, or do you also check the amounts of sugar, sodium, protein or dietary fiber in a serving? And does the serving size listed represent how much you might actually consume at a sitting?

The Nutrition Facts label, mandated by Congress on processed food packages since 1990, was designed to help Americans consume a more nutritious diet. If manufacturers had to reveal the nutrients and calories in foods, the reasoning went, they might be encouraged to add more nourishing ingredients and to eliminate or reduce those that are detrimental to health.

This strategy worked well for reducing artery-damaging trans fats, now all but gone from processed foods, but not nearly so well for ridding products of salt and sugar. And manufacturers added things like vitamins, minerals and fiber to make products appear healthier than they really are.

“Although the numbers can look good, the product may not be real food and have no nutritional value,” said Dr. David Kessler, who as the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration championed the development of the current label.

The epidemics of obesity and Type 2 diabetes show that the goal of a healthier population has yet to be realized. One obstacle is that those most likely to read food labels are health-conscious people who least need to do so.

But another problem is the label itself, which can border on meaningless for many consumers, especially those who cannot relate grams of a nutrient or percentages of the Daily Value to the amount of food that goes in their mouths.

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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President

Jeffrey R. Ungvary