November 30, 2004

Researcher: Nutrition labels have little impact

by Bonnie Marx

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Even though Americans have more access than ever before to the nutritional make-up of packaged foods, it doesn't seem to be helping combat a runaway national problem. More of us than ever before are obese and overweight.While the causes of obesity may be myriad, there is one piece of the puzzle that is the focus for a Southern Illinois University Carbondale researcher.

Siva K. Balasubramanian, a professor of marketing, has been studying how consumers use and process nutrition labeling since the 1994 implementation of the Nutrition Labeling Education Act (NLEA).

Now, after the release last March of a report, "Counting Calories: Report of the Working Group on Obesity," by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Balasubramanian is turning his researcher's eye toward that problem. He's about to begin a study that measures consumers' awareness of all the nutrients in their diets.

From the report: "The nation is currently facing a major long-term public health crisis. In recent years, unprecedented numbers of Americans of all ages have become either overweight or obese. This trend . . . has accelerated during the past decade and . . . unfortunately . . . shows no signs of abating."

"Americans want comfort food, escapism. They throw caution to the wind and eat any type of food because they find comfort in eating," Balasubramanian said. "For the first time, more young people are getting obese. If that trend continues, health care costs will continue to go up."

According to the FDA's report, the total economic cost of obesity in the U.S. is up to $117 billion per year. It adds that about 400,000 deaths per year stem from obesity, and that being overweight or obese greatly increases the risk for coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

Balasubramanian's previous studies found that consumers tend to ignore nutrition labels or instead, they fixate on one ingredient, such as fat. "Labels tell the calories from fat, but that includes all fat -- unsaturated, saturated and trans fat. People look at that and are instantly frightened," he said.

By ignoring labels or only looking at one ingredient, consumers aren't paying attention to total caloric content, he said. But he admits that getting consumers to read the detailed labels is a daunting task when there is such a super-abundance of food products.

"The NLEA law that mandated nutrition facts labels fixated on protein, fat, sodium and calcium," Balasubramanian said. "The problem was that they assumed merely providing the information was enough. My research shows that it was a good start but it's not enough."

Instead of trying to process all information, consumers felt overloaded with details and looked for shortcuts, he said. What caught their attention were what Balasubramanian calls "descriptor terms," those blurbs on the front label that tout "Low Fat" or "Low Sodium."

But manufacturers don't get to use those blurbs at will. The law also regulates what nutrition claims may be made on packages according to standards set by the FDA.

"People are grabbing products (because of the blurbs), they're not fixating on other nutrients and they usually end up paying a higher price for these things," Balasubramanian said.

It isn't just packaged food that's the culprit in the obesity war. It's also about eating out and take-home food. "Thirty to 50 percent of the food we eat is not made at home," Balasubramanian said.

So at the same time the FDA is considering changing nutrition labels to better emphasize the total caloric content, it is also considering requiring restaurants to provide nutrition information on menus or menu boards.

The FDA's plan to combat obesity is to combine efforts of federal, state and local governments, the packaged food industry, the restaurant industry (both quick-service and other types), the professional health community, consumer advocacy groups, schools and the media.

But the restaurant industry is not going along with the idea quietly.

"There's a huge restaurant lobby in Washington, D.C., that is saying 'keep us out of this.' They contend that a restaurant meal (at a high-end restaurant) is an art, not a science," Balasubramanian said.

At upscale restaurants, the customers don't care about the calories, he said. And while some restaurants have redone menus to cash in on the Atkins Diet craze, it's always with an eye to the bottom line.

"A hundred years ago, people didn't consume as much. Now there's a super-abundance of food and sedentary lifestyles," Balasubramanian said.

Usually government wants to keep regulations at a minimum, he said. "Before making a ruling, the FDA will invite comments. After considerable judgment, only then will they regulate. But the conventional wisdom is that we don't want one more rule."

Balasubramanian doesn't believe changing labeling or requiring restaurants to provide nutrition information would be a magic bullet, but he does believe it requires government intervention to solve the obesity problem. And it's tricky because people get defensive and feel intruded upon when others try to force self-improvement on them.

"I don't know if we can allow the problem to slide by without serious problems," said Balasubramanian. "Unless government does something that radically alters people's behavior, we're looking at big health care problems. And the projections of those health care costs are formidable."

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activity is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Photo by Steve Buhman