Should We Change How We Read the Food Label?

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This editorial is by Nora Saul, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., Manager of Nutritional Services at Joslin

Today, a patient asked me a question that started me thinking about Carl Bialik’s recent Wall Street Journal editorial on food labels and the metric system.

My patient was trying to determine the quantity of a meal replacement supplement she could have at lunch based on her carbohydrate allotment of 45 grams. She read on the label that one serving was 274 grams and provided 33 grams of carbohydrate. She wanted to know if her calculation of having 1/7 of the supplement was correct.

The patient had confused the weight measure of one serving of the product with the number of carbohydrate grams in the product. She wasn’t alone in making this error; many patients have the same difficulty. People in general are not comfortable with thinking about food in gram amounts.

As Bialik so ably pointed out, our country has had a dismal showing on metric math.

Outside the world of engineering, science and, of course, dietetics, the US population has made every effort to avoid learning anything about the metric system.

We have done a great job putting our heads in the sand. Other than the food label, few consumer goods are sold in meters, kilograms or liters.

Without a conceptual understanding of size comparisons in the metric system, consumers can’t attach any value to the number of grams of nutrients in food. Without this base line knowledge, the difference between a product containing 3 grams of fat versus 25 grams has no intrinsic meaning.

The food label was designed to stand on its own as a public health measure affording to help people make better nutrition choices. The average American consumer is supposed to be able to pick up any grocery item off the shelf, examine the label and make an informed decision about its nutrition value.

Yet, one of the things dietitians frequently have to do is teach patients to read a food label. Most people I have worked with are familiar with the label, but fewer than you would think have a good idea of how to use the label to shop advantageously

One solution to this problem is to change the units of measure from a metric base to English units. That still wouldn’t fix everything that makes food label reading difficult, but it may help people visualize what they are putting into their mouths and hence their bodies. It certainly is easier to visualize becoming a bit queasy about eating the equivalent of 91/2 tablespoons of fat versus approximately 92 grams when you have four slices of pizza.

By Nora Saul, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., Manager of Nutritional Services at Joslin

On the other hand, it would certainly be a step backward in the nation’s overall scientific literacy, since many American professions—not to mention the rest of the world—uses the metric system on a daily basis.

Let us know what you think- would replacing the gram amounts on the nutrition fact panel to measuring spoons and cups make it easier to read and more relevant to making healthy decisions in the grocery store? Or do you think it’s time we start using metrics?

11 Responses to Should We Change How We Read the Food Label?

  1. Tom Beatson says:

    I have been T1 since I was 10 years old, and that was 69 years ago (I have my 50-year medal). I have a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, so I have been familiar with the metric system for more than 60 years. It is so unfortunate that the US continues to keep its head in the sand about the metric system. T1 diabetics are in a position to lead the way: all insulin measurements are metric ONLY, and if they were ever non-metric, it was before I was dx. I suspect that metric measurement of insulin goes all the way back to Dr. Banting.

  2. Ruth Morrison says:

    We have a 5 year old grandson diagnosed 8 months ago.
    I haven’t used these labels too much before now. I have discovered that weighing by metrics is more precise.

  3. Ruth Morrison says:

    Is it true that there can be a 20% margin of error in the data on the nutrition labels?

  4. Betty Anderson says:

    Why not include both?

  5. Robert says:

    Oh man. No – teaspoons and cups are what should be eliminated.

    I weigh all of my food on a gram scale. 67 grams of chopped carrots are always 67 grams of chopped carrots. If cups were used, then the amount of carrots would vary depending on how finely they were chopped.

    In fact, I don’t even measure flour in cups – as it is not precise enough due to variations in density.

    I enter everything into an app called MyNetDiary and it sums them up and tells me how many net carbs there are.

  6. Debbie says:

    Based on trying to teach label reading to adults with and without diabetes for 17 years, I would say “yes”. Folks are familiar with measuring cups and spoons so they have a better idea what that means. Too often, they find the label reading so confusing they give up and their health suffers because of it. Even then, it is so important for people to learn what a tablespoon or cup of food really looks like. What people think is a cup and what a cup actually is varies greatly. As for it being a step backwards, if folks cannot understand it and in turn can’t take care of themselves well, becomes ill and/or die it doesn’t matter either way.

  7. Mary Bruce says:

    If people with diabetes are the first to bring the US into the 21st Century, then hurray.

    My father died of complications of diabetes and my sister has the disease now. Metrics are more precise and more efficient. Because of the precision, I think it is important to keep the measurements as they are. You’ll save more lives by using the metric measurements.

    And, don’t tell me diabetics are too lazy to learn a more effective way of keeping themselves alive. I don’t buy it.

  8. Andreina Gallegos says:

    I think metric system should be the standard. It is what is used worldwide. I thing including the portion size is what helps the most.
    On a separate comment but related to labeling, My daughter also has celiac and it would be great if all the food in the United States would be labeled regarding gluten, like it is in Europe, Brazil and Argentina.

  9. Tyrin Avery says:

    Actually, there’s been a fair amount of thought about different ways to change the food label. Berkeley actually had a contest to redesign it – any of the winners seem a whole lot better to me than the current label:
    Here’s another article about the winner.
    It really uses visual elements to help people understand what’s going on. Heck, it would be great if they just required 1 serving to equal 1 package so you don’t have to do math to make a match.

  10. adunn says:

    Keep it metric. Doesn’t anyone use the percentages as we do.

  11. Acheson Callaghan says:

    The problem was that the user did not recognize the difference between the toal weight of a serving and the carbo content. This will not be solved by changing from metric to oz and cups; only by simple instruction. That said it makes sense to keep the label in metrics for the reasons others have outlined.

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