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Understanding nutrition labels
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[APRIL 8, 2004]  URBANA -- The nutrition label on packaged foods provides a lot of helpful information, but consumers don't always understand what it means for them. Researchers at the University of Illinois are using a tool they call "See it, do it, teach it" to help people learn how to interpret and calculate nutrition information on food labels and apply the knowledge to their own daily requirements.

"One of the goals of the project was to help particularly teenaged girls and menopausal women understand how they can get the daily requirement for calcium into their diet in order to help prevent osteoporosis," said Karen Chapman-Novakofski, associate professor and nutritionist at the University of Illinois in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

Chapman-Novakofski and registered dietitian Lisa Tussing together developed an activity to help people have more confidence in understanding and being able to apply information on nutrition labels. Chapman-Novakofski said food labels can be thought of in two parts: what you should limit -- total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and perhaps total carbohydrates; and what you should try to get enough of in your diet -- vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. "Much more attention has been paid to what people should limit rather than the nutrients needed. The average consumer doesn't know, for instance, how much vitamin A 10 percent of the daily value is or how much calcium 25 percent of the daily value is," she said.

The activity that was developed involves three learning components. First, participants choose from an assortment of packaged foods and are taught how to read the nutrition label on it using the USDA's "Guidance on How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Panel on Food Labels." Next, they do some simple math problems in order to learn how the information relates to their own daily calorie and nutrient intake. "In the third component, each participant 'taught' the rest of the class by sharing nutritional information about her product, including whether it was a good or excellent source of calcium," said Chapman-Novakofski.


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Participants in the study were asked how much calcium they consume in their diet before and after the completing the activity. "The post-test revealed that the participants significantly increased their calcium intake to 821 mg per day, up from 372 mg per day," said Chapman-Novakofski. "That's a lot closer to the daily requirements of 1,200 mg per day for men and women over 50, 1,000 mg for men and women aged 19 through 50 and 1,300 mg per day for teenagers 9-13 years."

Children ages 9 to 13 need 1,300 mg of calcium in their daily diet. That's equivalent to about four servings of dairy products. Eight ounces of milk or 6 ounces of yogurt each provide about 300 mg. A 1-ounce cube of cheese or cheese stick is closer to 200 mg. Dairy products can be high in fat and calories, but the amount of calcium is the same regardless of whether the milk is whole, 2 percent or skim.

Of course, being able to read and understand the nutrition labels doesn't guarantee that a person will suddenly start eating right, but at least they can become aware of what nutrients they are getting from a certain food. "Many people were surprised to find out that there's calcium in cake mixes, frozen dinners, dry oatmeal and soups," said Chapman-Novakofski. "And questions about calcium in food servings led to other questions about the fat content of foods, how portion sizes are determined, and the difference between weight and volume of food portions." She said that the post-evaluation demonstrated that participants intended to use food labels more often when making shopping decisions.

The USDA guide used in the activity is available at

[University of Illinois news release]

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