The study finds that many people can't understand the nutrition labels on food packages.
Researchers gave a nutrition-label survey to 200 patients in their family doctors' office. The survey had been drawn up with input from doctors and dietitians — and was designed to measure whether patients could understand those labels.
Even though the patients surveyed were reasonably well-educated, most of them couldn't understand much, the researchers found. Of those surveyed, 77 percent had at least ninth-grade reading abilities and more than two-thirds had at least some college.
Overall, patients answered close to 70 percent of the survey questions correctly. But only 22 patients could calculate the number of carbohydrates in two slices of low-carbohydrate bread. And only 60 percent of patients could figure out how many carbohydrates were in half a bagel when the serving size on the package was a whole bagel.
Basic Math Issues
Patients had a hard time with basic math calculations, such as how many calories are in a 20-ounce soda bottle if a single serving size is 8 ounces?
Some experts say that consumers don't always know what to do with the information on a food label. "When most people look at a food label, their eye goes right to the number of carbohydrates — the grams of fiber or sugar," said Felicia Stoler, a nutritionist and exercise physiologist in New Jersey. "But most people don't understand how many carbs are in a single serving, or how many carbs they should eat in a day."
If patients can't rely on nutrition labels to guide their food choices, how can anybody ever know how to eat right?
"Poor understanding of nutrition labels can make it difficult for patients to follow a good diet," said Dr. Russell Rothman, study author and professor at the Vanderbilt Center for Health Services Research in Nashville, Tenn.
And a good diet is something that everyone should probably follow. In this study, roughly 40 percent of the patients surveyed suffered from a chronic illness and needed to keep a close eye on their diets. Rothman said that doctors should "improve how they talk to patients about using food labels and following diets. There are also opportunities for the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] to improve how food labels are designed in order to improve how patients take care of their nutrition."
In the meantime, patients can pay attention to the number of serving sizes in their packaged foods, for example, to keep a good handle on good nutrition. Many government organizations offer healthy food shopping tips for consumers on their Web sites.
Ultimately, eating right might be everybody's own personal challenge. "Everyone is different and has different nutritional needs," Stoler said. "We have to learn what our individual bodies need. That's not too hard to do."