Consumer Corner: Putting a label on healthy eating

MICHELLE GROENKE, United Press International

Enhanced food nutrition labels, reduced-sodium initiatives in restaurants and options for exercise and healthier food at airports may make it easier to stick to those New Year resolutions.

It turns out people are actually reading the food labels on packaging and menu boards, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture say.


A study of eating patterns and diet quality among working-age adults from 2005 to 2010 found consumers are eating fewer calories and making healthier choices. The report said people are also eating more fiber and less fat and feeling more confident of their ability to change body weight.

Forty-two percent of working age adults and 57 percent of older adults reported using the nutrition facts panel on food labels "most or all of the time when making food choices."

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Seventy-six percent said they would use the nutrition labels in restaurants, if they were available.

"The Obama administration is working hard to empower the American public to make smart choices every day at school, at home and in their communities," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. "We have made significant progress, but our work is not done. We will continue to invest in critical programs that expand the availability of healthy, safe, affordable food for all Americans."


Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey suggests daily caloric intake declined by 78 calories per day between 2005 and 2010. People were eating less total fat (3.3 percent), less saturated fat (5.9 percent) and less of cholesterol (7.9 percent). Overall fiber intake increased by 1.2 grams per day (7.5 percent), the report said.

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Compared with 2007, the percentage of working-age adults who believed they have the ability to change their body weight increased by 3 percentage points in 2010. During the same time period, the report shows consumers placed increased importance on nutrition when choosing items to purchase.

"When individuals believe that their actions directly affect their body weight, they might be more inclined to make healthier food choices," study author Jessica Todd of the USDA's Economic Research Service said in releasing the report.

The Great Recession may actually have been good for people's heath in one respect: Eating at home rather than a restaurant meant more frequent family meals and a 20 percent improvement in diet quality.

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During the recession of 2007-09, U.S. household overall food expenditures declined approximately 5 percent, mostly due to a 12.9 percent decline in spending on food away from home. During that period, calories consumed through food away from home dropped by 127 calories per day and the average person ate three fewer meals and 1.5 fewer snacks per month away from home, USDA said.


Restaurants are very aware of consumer interest in nutrition, especially when it comes to lower fat and salt, the National Restaurant Association said last week.

"Sodium is an important issue," Anita Jones-Mueller, president of nutrition consultant Healthy Dining of California, said in a statement. "Many chefs and restaurateurs are making incremental reductions and finding formulas that are successful for them."

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The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily sodium intake to no more than 1,500 milligrams a day.

Jones-Mueller said she predicts consumers are going to change the way they make choices at restaurants once more chain restaurants add calorie information to menus.

A new FDA menu-labeling mandate will apply to restaurant companies with 20 or more locations.

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"People are going to get used to seeing calories on the menu and that is going to help them make smarter decisions about what they choose," Jones-Mueller said. "Customers will look more at nutrient values and restaurants will be smart to start decreasing excess calories, saturated fat and sodium. They can cut down, even in small amounts, with items like dressings, sauces, butter, cream and salt."

Gluten-free labeling will change under regulations that take effect in August.

Jones-Mueller warned many of the items currently being labeled on menus as gluten-free will not meet the new FDA regulations, but as restaurants "put new processes and cross-contact practices in place, operators will see that providing gluten-free items is doable."


"The number of celiac and gluten-sensitivity diagnoses is growing and restaurateurs will want to meet the increased demand for gluten-free foods," she said.

A study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation suggests food companies have been successful at developing and marketing lower-calorie products. Sixteen of the nation's leading food and beverage companies sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in the United States in 2012 than they did in 2007.

The companies, acting together as part of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, pledged to remove 1 trillion calories from the marketplace by 2012, and 1.5 trillion by 2015. They have exceeded their 2015 pledge by more than 400 percent, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said.

The list of companies includes Bumble Bee Foods, Campbell Soup Co., ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Hillshire Brands, Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods Group/Mondelez, Mars Inc., McCormick & Co., Nestle USA, PepsiCo, Post Foods, the Coca-Cola Co., the Hershey Co., The J.M. Smucker Co. and Unilever.

The 16 companies produced 36 percent of the calories from all packaged foods and beverages, items such as cereals, snacks, canned soups, and bottled beverages sold in the United States in 2007.

"In 2010 the companies noted that, in order to meet the pledge, they likely would develop new lower-calorie options, change existing products so that they had fewer calories, and change portion sizes to introduce more lower-calorie packaging," a release from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said.


"Non-GMO" (genetically modified organism) labeling appears to be gaining steam with major food producers. Post Foods announced Thursday non-GMO verified Grape Nuts are now on store shelves.

GMO Inside, a national consumer campaign of Green America, said Post told the group it was looking at the possibility of adding more non-GMO verified products to the Post Foods product line.

The announcement comes closely on the heels of General Mills' decision to produce original Cheerios free of genetically modified organisms.

Business travelers looking to stick to their healthy resolutions will have fewer excuses this year when they pass through Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, which is boasting of its efforts to encourage healthy eating on the go. The airport, which was ranked No. 5 for healthy eating last year by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has launched a marketing campaign entitled "Eat Healthy at DFW" in a push to move up the rankings. Denver International Airport nabbed the top spot in 2013.

"Although we are very proud to be the fourth busiest airport in the world, we are equally as proud to be one of the healthiest," Ken Buchannan, executive vice president of revenue management at DFW Airport, said in a statement.


"It is our priority to top the 2014 Airport Food Review ranking with 100 percent of our eateries serving a nutritious option," Buchannan said.

The airport also offers a measured walking path inside Terminal D and a full-service yoga center.

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