Effect Measure

There’s a lot of stuff about tainted food in the news, whether it is toxins in imports or questionable additives in US products (e.g., bisphenol A in hard plastics). This stuff is not on any food label, of course, but there is a lot of detailed stuff that is on labels and increased concern about food seems to have made label reading more common. I’ve always wondered if the detail was encouraging or discouraging people from reading labels. How many people read labels really? Quite a few, it turns out, at least if you believe a new report, Label Reading from a Consumer Perspective, by the Hartman Group. What do people read and in what order?

Freshness dates, nutrition facts panels and ingredients lists are priorities for most consumers when reading product labels, according to a new report.


The new report examines the relevance, usefulness and effectiveness of information on labels. It also looks at the level of consumer awareness, their familiarity and their trust of a number of different symbols used in today’s marketplace.

“Consumers are doing more than just glancing at labels, they are actually reading them,” stated the report. (Food Navigator Report)

Almost a third of survey respondents said that even compared to a year ago they were reading labels “much more frequently.” Another third say they are reading labels “slightly more often.”

It’s interesting that the label component of most interest is the “sell by” date (60% of respondents). Next comes nutritional labeling, especially calories and fat (50%) about the same as freshness or “made on” dates. Thus at least half (the first and third)relate to consumer suspicion about food manufacturers, vendors and retailers. Caveat emptor is the principle behind than half of all food label reading. Healthy lifestyle is also in the mix, fueled by an obsession about weight. People now would like to know the country of origin of ingredients, although under modern industrial food production this can be difficult or impossible to figure out, even for producers. But even when present, it’s a lot of information and not always easy to figure out.

According to Hartman, many shoppers expressed frustration with locating the information they were looking for on a label.

In addition, consumers reported difficulties in deciphering elements on the nutrition facts panel because of variations in product properties in relation to serving size that may vary by product type, brand or category,

Another difficulty reported was the small font size of ingredients lists. The US Food and Drug Administration sets a minimum font size requirement of 1/16 inch in height. And because most marketers stick to the minimum requirement, many consumers, particularly the aging population, have difficulties reading the information.

There is consumer interest and one would think there is a public interest served by clear, proper labeling that contains relevant information. The interests of the food manufacturers don’t coincide with this public interest, but Congress has more often listened to manufacturers than the public. Be that as it may, these findings suggest that providing useful information on food labels is not a waste. Many people want it and will use it.

Of course they won’t if you need a microscope to read it.


  1. #1 jim
    December 26, 2007

    I’m a chronic label reader. However, the information is somewhat diluted by stupid disclaimers, because it’s easier to say a product has traces of things people are allergic to than it is to actually keep them out.

    For example, on the organic CLIF lemon,vanilla and cashew bar I had for lunch:

    “Allergen statement: contains cashews. May contain traces of dairy, peanuts, soy and other nuts.”

    Well, duh, that’s the ‘cashew’ part of ‘cashew bar.’ The second sentence is curious given it appears above this:

    “We source ingredients which do not contain soy, wheat, gluten or dairy and are not genetically engineered.”

  2. #2 gaudeamus
    December 26, 2007

    Knowledge is apparently a dangerous thing.

    The USDA is preventing beef producers from voluntarily testing all of its beef for BSE so that it can be labeled as such.

    The PA department of agriculture is preventing dairy producers from labeling their milk as rBGH-free.

    Since there is obviously some interest on the part of domestic (and foreign) consumers in having this information, why prevent them from having it? Is it because agribusiness could never produce food that met these criteria?

  3. #3 revere
    December 26, 2007

    guadeamus: I have covered this a couple of times in the past (e.g., see here). I agree with you. It is a disgrace.

  4. #4 Michael
    December 26, 2007

    I just watched an Anderson Cooper segment about the production of food in China.
    This report clearly states that the Chinese are watering their plants made for export with water that is highly contaminated with metals. The worst offender being lead.

    I checked my shelves. I found every single can of mushrooms in our larder is from China.

    I will no longer buy any canned goods from China. But, I wonder if I have to throw out all my mushrooms. I have eaten quite a few cans so far. I realize if they are full of lead, that this means the lead will accumulate in my body and be very slow to leave.

    What would you guys do?

  5. #5 bar
    December 27, 2007


    It’s not my field, but a quick search shows that lead is excreted in urine (about 1/10 mg/day) and that about 4 times that quantity in the faeces. So if that data is correct, and you kept your lead consumption below about 1/2 mg per day, you should be OK. 🙂

    Cite: excretion of lead in the urine

  6. #6 Jonathon Singleton
    December 27, 2007

    I’d darn well cart an electronmicroscope down to the store to reveal that “GMO Free” label on an “Aussie” soy and/or cereal product! I’ve just switched brands on veggie soya sausage and rasher products cos the label states that it’s made from local and imported products (GM soy from the US or Canada? — I’d rather suck on a lead battery)… Now, don’t get me started on frackin’ Cheerios (the corn, etc, sure aint GMO-FREE Aussie fare that’s fer sure — the main ingredients are North American grown and processed-packaged in the UK, then imported to OZ)!

  7. #7 Lea
    January 28, 2008

    I am over a month late responding, but most of my time has been filled with reading labels on food packaging. My adult autistic daughter has been diagnosed with Celiac Disease and also a sensitivity to MSG. I knew this would require changes in her diet, but never expected the amount of time and effort it would involve just to glean the information needed to make dietary changes.

    There are gluten free foods, information, blogs, and cookbooks popping up everywhere, which makes me a bit suspect that so many people seem to have become wheat or gluten intolerant lately.

    The larger difficulty is in avoiding the chemically produced form of MSG, which seems to be in everything although disguised under 20 or so different names such as autolized yeast or hydrolized vegetable protein. A local farmer told me it is even included in the mix of fertilizer used for crop-dusting tomato and pepper fields because the varietals are chosen for good transportability rather than flavor, and the MSG serves as a flavor enhancer when sprayed on young crops.

    The bottom line is that even reading labels doesn’t give one the answers needed in caring for someone like my daughter. By the way, are you aware that Mello Yellow contains gluten but at a small enough concentration that it doesn’t have to be listed on the can, although it is a strong enough concentration for people who have Celiac Disease to have a reaction.

    I have resorted to calling each food company, asking to speak to the nutritionist, and hoping for the truth. In the meantime, my daughter is living with the consequences of this sham.

    Suggestions are appreciated.

  8. #8 revere
    January 28, 2008

    Lea: Sorry to hear of your travails. We had a gluten sensitive friend and in trying to find things for her to eat discovered how difficult it was. Gluten is in so many things and hidden in ways that make it difficult or impossible to discover and the consequences of screwing up so significant (this person winds up in the hospital) that we got a new appreciation for what life on diets like that are like. Our friend has learned how to negotiate the world through hard and bitter experience. She learned but it was tough on her. I hope you find an easier way.

  9. #9 Tom DVM
    January 28, 2008

    Lea. I am sorry to hear of your struggle.

    Having been involved in the study of additives and other intentional adulteration of processed food and unprocessed agricultural products and produce for some years..and having a chronic affliction with an environmental-food component…

    …I well know the lack or regulatory willingness to 1) admit the inherent dangers of these additives and 2) to do something about it.

    For example, sulphite allergies are now the most common type of food allergy…and Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency(in my country) legalized a level of 50 ppm. on produce a few years ago…even though the minimum effective treatment (preservative) concentration is about 3 ppm – parts per million and allergies are created with trace amounts present.

    It is well known that one major reason for allergies is that loading doses of allergen are ingested at low dosages unknowlingly for prolonged time periods…and then identified by the immune system as foreign…leading to the immune reaction. An MSG like a sulphite allergy can be incapacitating.

    Luckily, there are still a few farmers left in North America, more by sheer determination and despite of a complete lack of support by the populace and governments…at least in Canada.

    I would suggest that you only eat food products that you can look into the eyes of the person who grew it or gives you the name of the person who grew it…

    …and please keep in mind that while processed foods are dangerous by a lack of survelliance…produce at the momentisn’t much better…and I could make an argument that it is now the most potentially dangerous food type.

    Sooner or later, the world will wake up to the fact that the contaminants we eat three times a day, every day of our lives, is the main reason for a number of conditions and cancers we face today.

    Hope all goes well in the future for you and your daughter.

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