As grocery shoppers begin to find new nutrition labels on packaged foods from canned peas to corn chips, and posters or brochures that offer similar information about meats, fish and produce, Maxine Casey and Judy Stuart will be available to help Carroll Countians understand and use the information.
Food processors will also have to abide by new rules covering such words as "light," "free" and "reduced" on labels.
Ms. Casey and Ms. Stuart, agents for home economics with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, are attending seminars and doing research this summer so they will be able to answer: "What happened to the list of vitamins and the recommended daily allowance?" and "What do these percentages of total fat and saturated fat mean?" and 'What's a 'percent daily value'?"
Nearly all processed foods will be required by May 1994 to carry new labels that list calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugars, protein, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.
Some products in local supermarkets already wear the new labels.
Labeling is voluntary for produce, fresh meat and poultry and fish. But supermarkets are expected to provide similar nutrition information for those foods.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service "wants some significant compliance by groceries [stores]," Ms. Casey said. "If not, they may consider making it mandatory."
A food label won't be allowed to say "light" or "lite" unless the product has no more than half the calories of an FDA-defined reference food.
"Sugar-free" will mean that a serving, as defined on the label, contains less than half a gram of sugar; "calorie-free" means a serving has fewer than five calories.
"Reduced sodium" or "reduced fat" must mean at least 25 percent less than the reference food.
The familiar "recommended daily allowance" will be replaced by a "percent daily value" that tells what percentage of a daily diet the food supplies.
To come up with the percent daily value, the government agencies agreed on a 2,000-calorie daily diet for the average American.
Elements that nearly all Americans get enough of, such as vitamin K and zinc, will not be required on the labels. The remaining vitamins will be listed with percent daily values. An 80 percent listing for vitamin A, for example, means a serving of the food supplies 80 percent of the consumer's vitamin A needs for a day.
The new labels should help people get serious about reducing the amount of fat they eat, Ms. Stuart said. "What we're doing isn't working now, telling you what percentage of a food is fat," she said.
The new labels will say how many total grams of fat a serving of the food contains and how many grams of the total are saturated fat, which is targeted as a contributing factor in heart disease. The percent daily value column will list the percentage of recommended maximum daily fat supplied by a serving of that food.
If a label says 20 percent for total fat, it means that one serving gives the person 20 percent of the fat he or she should eat that day.
In a healthy diet, fat makes up no more than 30 percent of total calories, and saturated fat no more than 10 percent, Ms. Stuart said. If the label says 25 percent for saturated fat, it means that one serving gives the consumer 25 percent of the saturated fat he should eat that day.
The new food-labeling rules are the product of several years of work by FDA and USDA personnel. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan touted the labels in December as a single format that will allow consumers to compare nutrition values and make healthy choices.
But Dr. Sullivan conceded that shoppers may be scratching their heads over the new labels at first.
That's where people like Ms. Casey and Ms. Stuart come in at the local level.
Ms. Stuart serves Carroll County for the Extension Service; Ms. Casey serves Carroll, Frederick, Washington and Allegany counties.
The two home economists have asked the county school system to let them teach teachers about the new labels during in-service programs next fall.
Ms. Casey has done a radio program on the subject in Carroll County and a talk for day-care providers in Washington County.
Ms. Stuart said she hopes to offer programs to senior citizens, food service workers and the developmentally disabled.
She and Ms. Casey are also waiting to see how much help the public will need from them, depending on how food producers and processors advertise and explain the new labels.
The meat industry is preparing brochures and posters for supermarkets to use with fresh meat, poultry and fish.
The displays will provide information such as total calories, cholesterol and sodium for a 3-ounce serving of steak, roast beef, chicken and other fresh meats.
The USDA is asking the industry to provide the information on 45 best-selling cuts of meat.
"We've worked with other trade associations to develop 'nutri-facts' for display in the stores," said John F. Gould, director of inspection services for the American Meat Institute.
Mr. Gould said he hadn't seen any of the new displays in the Baltimore or Washington areas, but he has seen a nutrition information brochure now available at Tom Thumb, a Southern supermarket chain.