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Making food labels easier to read

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 19, 2012 - Kristin Bilyeu knows a lot about microwave popcorns, one of her favorite treats. When shopping at a supermarket in Columbia, Mo., one day, Bilyeu was looking at the different varieties when an extra label on the front of one of the colorful boxes caught her eye. Zero grams of trans fat, it said. It might have sounded like good nutrition to an unwary consumer. But a look at the label on the side of the box revealed that the manufacturer had traded ingredients high in saturated fat for the trans fat that had been removed.

"It's a kind of trickery in exchanging one bad thing for another bad thing," she says, sounding more bemused that upset. "Just redesign the product and put something new on the label on the front."

Due partly to a move by first lady Michelle Obama, more companies have begun to add nutrition information on the front of their food containers. But some have added misleading information, as Bilyeu found, implying that the product is now more nutritious than it really is.

A molecular biologist, Bilyeu has more than a passing interest in trans fat. In her work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Missouri at Columbia, she focuses on turning soybean oil into an effective substitute for oil with trans fats.

Her research is timely in light of a nationwide movement to remove trans fat from food. The movement gained traction a few years ago after the Food and Drug Administration required trans fat be listed on food labels because it was associated with high cholesterol and a risk of heart disease. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest saysthe movement seems to be fizzling. It offers consumers a list showing that supermarket shelves still are filled with plenty of foods with high levels of trans fat.

Trans fats should be limited to no more than 2 grams a day, according to the American Heart Association. But the center says just one serving of Marie Callender's lattice apple pie or Pop Secret microwave popcorn exceeds the limit, with each containing at least 4 grams of trans fat. The center adds that Long John Silver's breaded clam strips have 7 grams of trans fat, while White Castle's doughnuts have 8 or 9 grams. But the center gives White Castle credit for removing trans fat from most of its other products,

Bilyeu says taking trans fat out of the menu is more complicated than consumers realize, touching on the challenges of finding a substitute that isn't too costly and satisfies consumer taste. Olive oil would be ideal, she says.

"If money wasn't an object, we probably would use it," she says, "But olive oil is five times more expensive than a commodity vegetable oil. And I don't think there are enough olive groves in the world to satisfy the needs for vegetable oil."

Soy bean oil, on the other hand, might eventually be ideal, she says. Her research focuses on boosting soybean oil's longevity by lowering its linolenic acid content through gene modification. The acid affects the oil's durability and stability. To reduce the acid, currently the oil is partially hydrogenated. But that process creates trans fat. Low-linolenic soybeans would not require hydrogenation.

Front and center

In the meantime, many manufacturers have begun to place nutrition information on the front of food packages. That's a good idea, says Glenda Kinder, nutrition and health education specialist at the University of Missouri extension in the Kansas City area. The labels are helping "busy consumers make better informed decisions as they shop."

The labeling differs among manufacturers. Some manufacturers, such as Kellogg's, have their own labeling systems, showing consumers how much sodium, sugar and other ingredients are in their products. The same is true of some grocery chains' private labels, such as Shop 'n Save. By contrast, the label on the front of Schnucks private brand of the equivalent of Cheerios says the product is low in fat and cholesterol free, for example, but offers no numbers.

Still other supermarkets use a labeling system created by NuVal. This private company licenses different scoring systems to evaluate and rank foods for nutritional content. The foods are graded on a scale from 1 to 100, with the higher number representing a better nutritional score. No local supermarket chains appear to use the NuVal system.

Paul Simon, a spokesperson for Schnucks, says the grocer felt a rating system would "be biased one way or another. At this time, we don't endorse any rating system. We give customers information on our products. It's not a rating system but a way of providing educational information for a nutritionally balanced diet. Our customers can also look closer at health information on the side" or the back of packages.

Kinder, the nutritionist and health educator, favors the front of the box. "I don't want to criticize them because I don't know enough about them," she says of NuVal, "But I can't imagine that you could get a very good idea of (the) nutritional value of a food just from a number."

On the other hand, she says the voluntary front-of-the-box labeling system, favored by the Obama administration, shows the amount of each key ingredient. "It's not a requirement, but I am seeing it more and more, and I do believe it has a place in helping people by offering more short-handed information," added Kinder.

She says that system is fact-based and conforms to the FDA's guidelines to ensure consumers get consistent and reliable information in four areas: calories, fat, sodium and sugar.

Mrs. Obama welcomed even more nutrition information on food labels. However, she saw the labels on the front as an alternative to having to remove the container from the shelf to find the calorie count, salt content and other information. Some manufacturers and grocery chains chose to design front-of-the-box labels that are so small that consumers still have to take products off the shelves to read the information.

The new labels may lead more consumers to pay closer attention to harmful ingredients in certain food products. Whether consumers act on the information is another question. Even Bilyeu, an informed biologist, concedes that her taste buds can get in the way of good nutrition some days — for instance, when she's making a pie that needs a perfect, flaky crust.

To be sure, there is soybean oil, canola oil and olive oil in her kitchen.

But she says, "I have lard and butter, too."

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.