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The Smart Side of Label Illiteracy

During a recent trip to the grocery store I noticed that my favorite granola bars now have 25 percent less fat. However, upon arriving home with the newly purchased granola bars and comparing them with my remaining old ones, I discovered the reason for their lower fat content — the new bars were smaller. Feeling tricked by the food company, I swore I'd never buy these bars again (well, at least until the sting of the food company's deceit fully leaves my memory).

It's easy for food manufacturers to deceive consumers with marketing and confusing labeling. Even if they weren't trying, though, it appears it wouldn't take much to cause confusion. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed in an online poll by Harris Interactive and the Wall Street Journal say that they regularly read food labels. However, few people understand what they are reading. According to a different survey of 200 primary care patients, 68 percent of those asked could not correctly calculate the amount of carbohydrates in a 20-ounce bottle of soda that contained 2.5 servings. Those who had the most trouble were people with low literacy or math skills. Other low performers (although some of them might be included in the previous group, too) were overweight individuals with chronic illnesses — just the population that most needs to understand the labels.

My first thought upon hearing about this survey was, what school did these people attend that they can't do basic math? But then I decided to look at this as an opportunity for you — a fitness professional. If 51 percent of people read food labels but only a small percentage of them know what the labels mean, they need an educator. Who better to educate them than the local fitness facility down the road with their own registered dietician on staff?

Perhaps fitness facilities can take a cue from grocery stores, 72 percent of which are offering customers some type of nutritional guidance, according to a Food Marketing Institute survey. A grocery store chain in New England has rated the food it sells using a star system. Food products deemed healthy are given one star. Those evaluated as a little healthier are given two stars, and those considered the healthiest are given three stars. Food products with no nutritional value receive no stars. The store uses guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rate the food. The chain gives points to a product for meeting the recommended levels of nutrients and takes away points for “bad” ingredients, such as sugar and saturated fats. So far, the chain has evaluated 27,000 food items. It may not surprise you that only a quarter of those products earned at least one star. That's a lot of “bad” food in our grocery stores.

Even if the grocery stores in your area already provide nutritional guidance, customers still need to know how to put all these foods together for a well-balanced diet. If you partner with a grocery store in your area to offer a seminar or informational table at the grocery store or if you pass out flyers in each grocery sack about your own healthy eating/label reading seminar at your facility, then you can be the information source for potential members of your club. Even if they never join your facility, won't you feel better knowing that perhaps you've helped set someone on the road to healthier eating and a healthier lifestyle?

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