Critical information that 75 percent of people won’t get

It always amazes me how the United States brags about being at the forefront of everything. When usually, we’re at the forefront of nothing–most notably when it comes to health and nutrition.

The current state of our nutrition label is a perfect illustration of this backward thinking. Mostly because it doesn’t really tell you squat about the nutritional quality of your food. (That is, assuming you’re able to read it in the first place.)

So I guess it’s lucky for us that New Zealand researchers have decided to look into the matter. I just hope we have enough sense to put their findings to good use.

This new study surveyed nearly 600 people, in order to gauge their response to different approaches to relating nutrition information.

One proposed label used a star-rating system–displaying one, two, or three stars based on calorie content. (A good place to start, for sure–but nowhere near perfect in my mind.)

Another approach used a label based on traffic lights. This divided nutritional components into five different categories. Red for “bad,” orange for “moderate,” and green for “good.”

These labels also included descriptions of how many minutes of exercise would be required to burn off the calories in each product. A brilliant idea that I think is way more effective than plain calorie counts, since it’s a lot more visceral.

And it would seem the study participants agreed with me. Less than a quarter recalled seeing the traditional nutritional labels with calorie counts. But labels that showed how much walking or running it would take to burn off those calories?

Well, they stuck with roughly 90 percent of the people surveyed.

Ultimately, you can’t argue with the premise behind this study. A nutrition label that’s transparent and easy to interpret is a no-brainer.

Although I have to say, classifying certain components as simply “good” or “bad” bothers me a bit. Mostly because the definition of “good” and “bad” in this case varies wildly, depending on who you ask. (Whatever you do, don’t ask the American Heart Association.)

And then, of course, there’s the fact that calorie content is hardly the most reliable indicator of a food’s nutritional value. (After all, there are over 300 calories in a single avocado. And guess what? They help you lose weight.)

Still, there’s no question that increasing nutritional awareness is a serious public health concern. One the United States is at least attempting to address with legislation like the NYC ban on big sodas, and requirements to list calorie counts on restaurant menus.

In fact, the FDA is saying that they’ll be making label re-hauls a priority this year, too.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is pushing the agency to make several amendments to current labeling practices. Their wish list includes a bolder emphasis on calorie content and giving added sugars their own line on the label.

No word, of course, as to when these changes might actually happen. (Or whether they’ll actually make a real difference. Let’s just say I have my doubts)

Ironically, U.S. food labels haven’t really changed much since the late 60s. The same can’t be said for this country’s eating habits, however. Needless to say, those have changed dramatically.

Today, the typical American family lives off of processed, pre-packaged foods. And when we are making meals at home, the ingredients are usually coming out of a box or the freezer.

It’s a sad state of affairs. (One that won’t be fixed by making calorie counts more prominent on cereal boxes.) And it’s also a big reason why this nation is so fat.

But I’ll save that discussion for tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Chibber, Ankush. “Nutritional labels not working in New Zealand, says study.” 13 January 2014.
Christenson, Jen. “Fat, calories, sugar: nutrition labels getting a makeover.” CNN ( 24 January 2014.