Food labels: Are people really reading them?

With all the hype about food labels, who is actually paying attention?

As Americans consume more and more meals away from home due to a busy lifestyle, restaurants are now helping to make those “healthy choices” more obvious. Eating out provides about one-third of the calories in American’s diets, and often foods that are consumed away from the home are higher in calories, fat and sodium compared to foods we would normally prepare at home. Without clear, easy to use nutrition information it can be difficult to make healthy choices.

The new trend is for restaurants to post calorie contents of foods they serve on the menu, or even denote a healthy choice with a specific icon. But do these actions really affect the consumer’s choice?

Gallup recently polled over 2,000 adults from the United States and the results showed:

  • 43 percent pay attention to nutrition information on a restaurant menu.
  • Women are more likely than men to pay a greater deal or fair amount of attention to nutrition information on restaurant menus by 36-49 percent.
  • Young adults ages 18-29 are the age group least likely to say they pay attention to nutrition information.
  • College graduates (81 percent) are the group most likely to say they pay attention to nutrition information in restaurants, exceeding those with some college (67 percent) and those with a high school diploma or less (58 percent).
  • Lower-income Americans are less likely than middle and higher-income Americans to say they pay attention to nutritional information in restaurants.
  • There are relatively minor differences by race.

Menu labeling will soon be a federal requirement for restaurant chains with 20 or more locations. This will include calories on menu boards and making available written information about total calories and calories from fat, amounts of fat and saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total and complex carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber and protein.

Everyone should consume a different fat and calorie amount each day based on your body size and the number of calories you need each day to maintain, lose or gain weight. A goal for fat grams should be about 25 percent of your total calorie intake. To find out your estimated calorie levels and recommended food plan visit myplate.gov.

Michigan State University Extension offers nutrition education classes for adults that discuss choosing healthy options from each food group, shopping on a budget, as well as basic nutrition information. More information can be found at http://msue.anr.msu.edu/program/info/eating_right_is_basic_erib and http://msue.anr.msu.edu/program/info/cooking_matters.

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