"Lite" olive oil may have no fewer calories, cereal boasting "all natural fruit flavors" may have more salt and coloring than flavor, and "sugar-free" snacks may have sweeteners as fattening as sugar.
What's a health-conscious consumer to do?Frank E. Young, who heads the federal agency that regulates the labels on much of our food, can sympathize. He's a doctor, and even he has trouble.
It's hard "to read labels and figure out what to eat," said Young, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for labels on foods not regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Statements on food packages by law must be true, but may not tell consumers all they want to know.
"Saturated fat is still not listed, cholesterol is still not listed, and fiber is still not listed . . . These are the nutrients the surgeon general has told the American public to watch for when they go shopping," said Bruce Silverglade of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Food processors say the problem is that many consumers aren't sufficiently informed about ingredients to interpret information already on labels.
The FDA was sidetracked from food label reform by such issues as AIDS and food additives, he said. But labeling will be a dominant issue this year, and the agency is considering new regulations on fiber and cholesterol.
Silverglade agreed that prospects for reform are better, because of reports advising Americans to modify their diet, and because of consumer frustration.
Still, Young said, it likely will be years before consumers see changes.
There are two issues the FDA must consider: nutrition labels, listing ingredients in descending order by weight, and per-serving amounts of calories, protein, and certain vitamins and minerals; and health claim labels.
"Health claims are claims that talk about the people that eat the food. Nutrition claims are claims that are made about the properties of the food," said Professor John L. Stanton at St. Josephs University in Philadelphia.
"We really need a strategy that includes both of them," Young said. An FDA proposal awaiting Office of Management and Budget approval would regulate health claims.