What are label readers looking for, anyway?

Study reveals the top nutrients we're looking for on packaged food labels

Got iron? You may want to check.

The top five items Americans are seeking to maximize when they scan the Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods are, in descending order: whole grains, dietary fiber, calcium, vitamin C and protein, according to a recent report from the NPD Group's Dieting Monitor.

Label High Five

The most common items people look for on food labels:

1. Whole grains

2. Dietary fiber

3. Calcium

4. Vitamin C

5. Protein

Not a bad list, but it includes protein, which is not lacking in most American diets, and excludes iron, one of the more common deficiencies.

"Growing adolescents and premenopausal women tend to be deficient in iron," said Lalita Kaul, a professor at Howard University's College of Medicine.

"Vitamins A and C, calcium and iron should all be looked at."

Iron is vital to oxygen transport within the body and necessary for cell growth and differentiation, according to the National Institutes of Health. A deficiency reduces oxygen delivery to cells, causing fatigue and decreasing immunity.

Overall, consumer priorities, as measured by the Dieting Monitor report, are in line with dietary needs, according to Kaul. But unless you're a vegan or you're on a restricted protein diet due to a kidney or liver problem, you don't have to spend much time thinking about protein.

"We are getting enough protein, and there's not that much concern" among researchers, Kaul said.

The Dieting Monitor also found that the five nutrients that a large percentage of consumers are trying to avoid, ranked in descending order, are: fat, sugars, cholesterol, sodium and trans fatty acids.

And the top five items on the label we're most interested in overall are: total calories, total fat, calories from fat, sugars and sodium.

Kaul said that all of those issues are important — that's why they're on the relatively short list of nutrients included on the label. But in her experience, many people look at the small picture, asking, say, is a particular food low-fat? They ignore big-picture issues such as how many calories they're consuming overall.

"I think the best priorities are calories and fat, and I would add sodium because we, according to the last study, are consuming too much sodium," she said.

"An excess of saturated fat and trans fat will contribute to heart disease, and heart disease is still the No. 1 (killer)."


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