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Understanding food nutrition labels challenging for many people

In one of the most rigorous studies ever conducted to determine how well people comprehend the information provided on food nutrition labels, researchers have found that the reading and math skills of a significant number of people may not be sufficient to extract the needed information, according to an article published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Using standardized and validated tests for literacy (REALM -Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Medicine) and numeracy (WRAT3 - Wide Range Achievement Test), researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center surveyed 200 primary care patients from a wide socioeconomic range. A Nutrition Label Survey (NLS), designed with input from registered dietitians, primary care providers, and experts in health literacy/numeracy to evaluate patient understanding of current nutrition labels, was used to measure comprehension of current food nutrition labels. One part of the NLS asked subjects to interpret food labels, such as determining carbohydrate or caloric content of an amount of food consumed. The other part asked patients to choose which of two foods had more or less of a certain nutrient, giving patients a 50/50 chance to guess the correct food item. Also, half of the survey questions involved products that were clearly labeled on their package as "reduced carb," "low carb," or designed for "a low-carb diet."

Sixty-eight percent of patients had at least some college education, and 77% had at least 9th-grade level literacy skills. However, 63% of patients had less than 9th-grade numeracy skills. Over 40% had a chronic illness for which specific dietary intervention is important (e.g., hypertension, diabetes), and 23% reported being on a specific diet plan. Most patients reported using food labels and found labels easy to understand.

Overall, patients correctly answered 69% (SD 21%) of the NLS questions. For example, only 32% of patients could correctl
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Elsevier Health Sciences
26-Sep-2006


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