Natural Foods Merchandiser

Help your customers decipher food labels

As a natural foods retailer who sources and stocks whole foods using the healthiest ingredients possible, Lorna Birdsall, owner of Napa, Calif.-based Golden Carrot Natural Foods, says she's happy that her customers are more enlightened than many others, and care about reading food labels.

"When I walk around my store, I always see people picking up the boxes and studying them before they toss them in their carts," she says. "They want to choose the best foods for their families."

Armed with more information about what's nutritionally sound than most conventional shoppers, your customers are more likely to ask a lot of questions—and you might find yourself fielding queries you don't know how to answer. While most natural foods store owners are well versed in the sustainability and business practices of the manufacturers whose products they stock, questions about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Nutrition Facts panel can be trickier.

"A lot of my customers want to know about the problems with soy and corn in the world right now, and although the FDA doesn't require labels like that on foods, we talk about those issues with our shoppers," Birdsall says. "But when it comes to things like the FDA's daily recommended values, it's tougher."

Here are top questions shoppers have about the FDA-required Nutrition Facts panel, and answers from Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo and Bonnie Taub-Dix, dietitians and spokeswomen for the American Dietetic Association:

What's the most important element to look at on the label?
While all of the items are essential in their own way, the serving size is definitely the place to start, Taub-Dix says. "The rest of the info on the food label is based on this." For example, the label on a 16.9-fluid-ounce bottle of iced tea may say 200 calories—but if there are two servings per container, you have to double that amount.

What's something I should be looking for—but might be missing?
"Many shoppers look for calories first, but the ?calories from fat' line is far more important," Taub-Dix says. The FDA recommends that people get no more than 30 percent of their daily calories from fat, so this requires a little bit of math: If a serving of your favorite cereal contains 120 calories, and 10 calories come from fat, the fat percentage is 8—well under the FDA's 30 percent guideline.

What do all of those 'percent daily values' really mean?
These are the FDA's recommendations of how much fat, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, carbohydrates, protein and various nutrients consumers should be getting each day. "What most people don't understand is that these recommendations are based on a 2,000-calorie diet," says Gazzaniga-Moloo. "So when you're shopping for young kids, for example, you have to keep in mind that they're not eating 2,000 calories a day." Here are some ADA guidelines to help consumers make sure they're getting enough of a particular nutrient:

  • A food with 5 percent or less of the percent daily value is considered to be low in that nutrient.
  • If it's between 10 percent and 19 percent, it's considered to be a good source.
  • If a food has 20 percent or higher, it's considered an excellent source of that nutrient.
  • The FDA is considering establishing new guidelines for nutrients, or adding or removing nutrients from the Nutrition Facts Label. To submit comments, go to by Jan. 31, 2008.

    If an ingredients list is long, does it mean it's a bad product?
    Your shoppers already know to look for things like whole grains, no high-fructose corn syrup and as little sugar as possible in the ingredients list—and you're likely doing your best to steer clear of products that include ingredients that aren't nutritionally sound. But what about a daunting list of ingredients that might inspire shoppers to put the product down? "In general, the list of ingredients can be incredibly long, but what you want to watch out for is lots of unrecognizable words," Gazzaniga-Moloo says. "That usually means you're getting more preservatives than nutrients."

    Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 12/p. 38

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