Jan 242012
Authors: Jason Pohl

Before you finish that fourth Redbull or even that “healthy” energy bar, do you know for sure how many calories you just put down?

If you’re like many consumers and not on your toes 24/7, it may be more than twice as many as you think.

In a study published in the January edition of the Journal of Marketing, CSU Professor Gina Mohr explains there is more to calorie counting and label-reading than first meets the eye –– something she says can fool even the most observant nutritionist and have deeper repercussions across society.

“A consumer may feel better about making a food choice if the nutrition information is provided, but if they are using the information incorrectly, then the regulations made to help consumers are ineffective,” Mohr said in an email to the Collegian.

Mohr and her colleagues explain that the most-looked-at part of the Food and Drug Administration-mandated labels is often manipulated by product manufacturers –– often within the law. Though the FDA regulates labels in accordance with the 1990 Nutritional Labeling and Education Act, manufacturers have options in how to present the information and may sometimes step out-of-line in favor of misleading potential buyers.

Manufacturers often choose to increase serving numbers on even the smallest product like a candy bar or soda, thus decreasing per-serving calorie counts and fooling non-vigilant consumers.

For example, many students may see a mini frozen pizza as a snack or single meal. But labels often split the pizza in two or even four sections, reducing the number of calories –– per serving. While it may say there are only 200 calories, if you read the fine print you may find there are actually four servings, meaning that snack can quickly become more than half of your recommended daily intake.

Consumers across the board, including students, often fall victim to this misconception, which can radically change the way you view your own health.

“I think it’s an issue for a lot of people,” said Patrick Weseman, a senior math and music double major. “I think they (labels) can make sense, but I think they confuse people a lot of the time.”

Weseman added that, while labels can be misleading, the larger hurdles come in getting people to truly understand what sorts of nutrition they are putting in their body.

“People need to understand what they’re reading as well as what they’re eating,” he said.
Mohr and her colleagues agree and explain how important studies like this are to really understanding labels.

Donald Lichtenstein, a professor within the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, explained further how the hundreds of individuals studied over several years often looked only at the calorie counts per serving as opposed to how much they intended to eat.

“The takeaway from all of this is that consumers, when they look at nutritional labels, really have to do the math,” he said.

Interestingly, the study indicates that label-confusion is especially common for those who consider themselves to be “nutritionally vigilant” nutrition readers.

“Overall, I think consumers have to be taught how to use the tools that are made available to them,” Mohr said.

It’s more than just about calories

According to Mohr, it’s about public policy, especially in today’s society. The study explains how numerous government initiatives are in the works to make labels more prominent. While this may sound like a quality idea at first, the authors say it would likely confuse consumers even more.

Placing such an emphasis on calories without looking at the whole picture might ultimately do more harm than good, they say.

Additional enforcement and oversight by the FDA may also be called for, but Lichtenstein said the problem may be worsening due to staffing issues, which he said are common among most government groups.

Additional questions of changing the way a serving is defined have also been raised, but no concrete plans are in place – yet.

In the meantime, the burden of deciphering nutrition labels will remain on the consumer.

“The best we can do for now is to educate consumers how to use the information that they have,” Mohr said. “I think it is important to help consumers make better choices. Take a close look, and read them (labels) carefully; even the most health-minded individual can be misled.”

Senior Reporter Jason Pohl can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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