More shoppers reading food labels, FDA finds

While foodmakers are getting more creative about the health claims they make on the front of their products -- olive oil that cures cancer and green tea that cures Alzheimer's disease -- a new survey finds that American shoppers are getting savvier about reading the old-school nutrition information printed on the back of food packages.

For the first time, more than half of shoppers (54 percent) told interviewers for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 2008 Health and Diet Survey that they "often" read the nutrition label when they consider buying a product. Two-thirds of those label readers said they look for information about calories, fat, salt and vitamins. But only 46 percent of the 2,584 adults surveyed said they used the nutrition label to assess the calorie content of packaged foods, and 34 percent said they rarely or never do.

Declarations that products are "low fat," "high fiber" or "cholesterol-free" sway only 38 percent of consumers, and 27 percent said they routinely ignore them. That might explain why marketers have been making ever-more-ambitious claims about the healing powers of their foods and beverages. If so, there's evidence that the strategy has backfired: 56 percent of those surveyed said they doubted the accuracy of some or all of those claims.

Another surely unintended consequence: Recently, the FDA revealed that it has sent warning letters to 17 foodmakers accused of printing false or misleading nutrition information on product packages. In the letters, Roberta Wagner, director of the Office of Compliance in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, informs the companies, "Failure to promptly correct these violations may result in regulatory actions without further notice, such as seizure and/or injunction."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which may have prompted the letters through its own investigation of food labels, called the action "a once in a generation event."