Standing before row after row of luncheon meats at the Giant at Loch Raven Boulevard and Taylor Avenue, Arthur Boardman lifts a package off its hook and studies it intently. "My wife wants turkey breast," says the retired Social Security Administration employee. "What I'm looking for is calories per slice." He points to the corner of the label. "Ninety-seven percent fat-free. That's it." Into the cart it goes.
A few aisles over, Tom Leitzell, single and decades younger, studies the label on a jar of peanut butter. "Basically I want my food to be as simple as possible," he says. "I don't want sugar in my peanut butter, I just want peanuts."
Across town at Santoni's on East Lombard Street, Marcella Lorden, a Highlandtown homemaker, flips over a package of Perdue Fit 'n' Trim ground turkey to check the fat content. "I have to shop for certain things for my husband. He has a heart condition. So I have to read the labels pretty well," she says.
Scenes like these, enacted over and over in supermarkets around Baltimore, are enough to prove to consumer advocates, government agencies and the nutrition education industry that they are on the right track.
People are concerned about better nutrition. They're aware that too much fat and cholesterol and sodium are not good, and that they can make choices in the grocery aisles that will make their diets more healthful. They're wary of manufacturers who try to put products in the best light -- it seems the words "light" or "lite" on a package raise a red flag for most of them.
They know they need more information to make the best choices. That's why they're willing to stop and read the labels.
In fact, labels -- those seemingly innocuous, tiny-print panels that appear on the back or the side or the bottom of food packaging -- have become the rallying point for people in the nutrition establishment who want consumers to pay more attention to what they eat.
A new national food-labeling law intended to give consumers more information -- and to put that information into more useful terms -- is just beginning to be reflected on packaging.
This week, Oct. 11-17, the American Heart Association and the Healthy Choice company have teamed up for "HeartFest," a campaign to teach consumers the benefits of a diet low in fat, sodium and cholesterol, and how the new food labels can help them make food choices. Heart association volunteers will visit more than 6,000 groceries nationwide to give out brochures and information, and they hope to reach more than 5 million people.
"This is a critical time to educate people, as we're just beginning to see the new labels on products," says Anita Wehrman, a registered dietitian in Baltimore who's a volunteer with the American Heart Association.
Like many nutrition professionals, Ms. Wehrman worries about how people translate the information they have into purchasing decisions. "I think people are concerned about eating a balanced diet," she says, "but there's a lot of confusion surrounding the fat and cholesterol issues."
Most people know they need to reduce fat consumption to 30 percent of calories, she says, but some confuse the total diet with a single food, and think no food with more than 30 percent calories from fat can be included. In fact, calories from fat should add up to 30 percent of the total of all foods eaten.
Some foods will have more than 30 percent calories from fat but contain essential nutrients that shouldn't be left out of the diet. They need to be balanced with other foods, such as vegetables, which have virtually no calories from fat.
"We don't want people to get that good food-bad food idea -- we want them to understand the balance of nutrients," Ms. Wehrman says.
Will the labels be enough? If the Baltimore shoppers, Mr. Boardman, Mr. Leitzell and Mrs. Lorden are typical, the new labels might be exactly the thing to turn concerned shoppers into nutrition-savvy consumers.
According to a poll conducted in 1992 for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a Washington-based trade association, nearly three-quarters of all grocery shoppers are concerned enough about the nutritional quality of the foods they buy to read labels.
The survey, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc., showed:
* 72 percent of shoppers said they watch the amount and types of food they eat.
* 71 percent read the nutritional labels on foods either all the time or most of the time.
* 76 percent read the ingredients list.
Those figures are borne out by the experiences of area grocery sellers, who have in the past few years seen demand growing for low-fat, low-sodium, high fiber and fresh foods.
"We have definitely seen a trend at Giant," says Barry Scher, vice president of communications for the Landover-based food chain. "People are interested in healthier food, in more information on the label and more information at the point of purchase. People are more interested in poultry, pasta and seafood."
He attributes that partly to the economy -- people looking for value in hard times, but adds, "In the back of their minds is the health issue."
"We've even picked up a fat-free hot dog," says Paul Santoni, executive vice president of the small chain of stores that bears his family name. "We're selling a lot of these type things." Shoppers have been asking for low-fat bacon and other meats. Even in the deli department, he said, "low-fat, light and lean" are the watchwords.
"I can't think of a single department in the store that doesn't have some emphasis on nutrition," Mr. Santoni says, "Shoppers are reading the labels much more now than ever before. -- I do it myself."
At Giant, Jack Tischinger, an elementary physical education teacher from Parkville, is shopping with a list in his hand. "I do read labels," he says. Fat, sodium and sugar are tops on his nutrition hit list, though he also uses ingredient lists to compare generic items with their branded counterparts. "I'm not an old man, but I'm not a spring chicken any more. As I've gotten a little older, my attitude and my taste have both changed. . . . We're not the meat eaters we used to be, and we've gotten away from eggs."
"My wife and I have always watched what we eat," says David Heneberry of Towson, shopping at Giant. "We're trying to screen out a lot of chemicals, a lot of fat -- what they call empty calories. But I think people are still getting fooled by labels a lot."
"I'm offended by the deceptive advertising," says Sherry Peck of Towson. "On the labels, all cereals have the same number of calories -- they're just manipulating the serving sizes."
"I read somewhere that even if the label says zero fat, it still has at least 10 milligrams of fat," says Yolanda Morris of Baltimore, shopping at Safeway for herself and her two nieces.
"I don't feel I have that much control" over ingredients, says Charlotte Charthern of Baltimore, at Giant. "Things that are low in fat tend to cost more -- I try to cut back in other ways."
"I think people really want to know what's in their food," says Odonna Mathews, vice president of consumer affairs for Giant. But, she says, label and packaging information has been a problem. Consumers have become frustrated when "they haven't been able to easily determine what they wanted to know" from the labels, she says. Deceptive use of terms such as "light" and "low-fat" soured some consumers on package labels, she says. "They lost faith in the definitions."
Edie Meleski, director of media relations Food Marketing Institute, a Washington-based industry association, says contradictory reports in the media discourage consumers from paying attention to new health claims. She cited last year's flaps over milk's benefits for children and over the types of fat in margarine as among the most confusing.
The FMI-Prevention survey found that while 58 percent of the people surveyed consider their understanding of diet and nutritional issues to be "excellent" or "good," that figure was down from 68 percent expressing such confidence in 1992.
As for label information, the survey found just 25 percent of shoppers consider nutritional labeling information to be "very clear." Another 56 percent found them "somewhat clear,"
however, and only 3 percent said they were "not at all clear."
Tricia Obester of Public Voice for Food & Health Policy, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, calls current label definitions "a tower of Babel. . . . People were throwing up their hands because there was so much contradictory information coming at them."
At the Safeway store in Mount Clare Junction in Southwest Baltimore, Cassandra Sterrett is shopping with her two children and her fiance, Dennis Moses. So far they have picked up eggs, spaghetti sauce (a store special), grape soda, milk and Cheerios.
"I like Cheerios, corn flakes and Total," says Ms. Sterrett, but the kids, Candice, 6, and Julius, 3, "like mostly the sweet cereal."
She allows them to choose one box of something they like, but otherwise, Ms. Sterrett says, she makes the choices based on nutritional values. "Mainly it's fat content, sodium and cholesterol -- recently it's the sodium," that concerns her most. "I have high blood pressure," she says.
A few aisles over, Phyllis Calvert of South Baltimore explains why these days she often checks for salt content, although she "never" read labels in the past. The change came about after she bought a so-called "diet" specialty food for a friend and happened to sample it. "It was really salty," she says. "That just started me looking at the labels."
Back at Santoni's, Michael Broll, a Baltimore police officer who's doing the family shopping, says, "I have a cholesterol problem, so I have to watch what I eat. I'm looking for low-fat, low-sodium, things that are high in vitamins and minerals." So he reads the labels on packaged foods, and he says, "I am buying more fruits and vegetables."
The most common reason people give for careful label-reading is a health concern. People with children, such as Ms. Sterrett, often compromise to be sure of having foods in the house that they know the youngsters will eat. But even people who say they're too busy to read labels, or don't have a health concern that makes them cautious, admit they will pause to study the contents of a new product.
In fact, in a survey earlier this year by FMI and Prevention magazine, 83 percent of those questioned said they almost always or sometimes pay attention to the nutritional label when buying a food for the first time. This is up from 77 percent in 1992. In 1993, 55 percent of the nutritional-label readers changed a purchase decision based on what they read. What items are people looking for when they study the labels on food? Fat content tops the list with 59 percent, according to another FMI survey called "Trends 1993: Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket." That's followed by calorie content (32 percent), sodium content (31 percent), ingredients and cholesterol level (tied at 22 percent), nutritional content and sugar content (tied at 21 percent), and artificial ingredients or preservatives (19 percent).
"Rapid changes in the grocery business are being driven by a change in consumers," says Jeffrey Nedelman, vice president of communications for the Grocery Manufacturers. Changes have been most dramatic since the recent recession, he says, both in grocery practices and consumer awareness. Price and value are primary concerns, but "nutrition is important. There's been an explosion of fresh fruit drinks and juices. People are very conscious of trying to get vitamins, and eating fresh fruits and vegetables."
Nutrition seems to be important even for people who can't be bothered to read lables.
"I'm 72 years old and I eat what I want," Ruth Gauss says, adding a six-pack of Classic Coke to her cart at Safeway. "I've had two heart attacks. I know I'm not supposed to smoke, I'm supposed to eat this and not eat that. . . . I figure I can live and enjoy what I'm doing, or I can go crazy reading labels. I do try to balance my diet out. I eat a lot of fish and chicken, very little beef."
Most consumer advocates expect life in the supermarket lanes to get easier because of the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act of 1990. And they hope that clearer labels will encourage even more people to examine them.
Virtually all foods will carry the new labels. There are few exemptions; plain coffee, tea and spices are among items with "no nutritional significance" that won't have to be labeled.
And, for the first time, under NLEA, the government has standardized serving sizes, strictly defined health claims that may be made and given strict definitions to descriptive terms that may be used, such as "light" or "lite," "very low" (for sodium), "free" (as in "fat-free"), "extra lean," and "fresh." The new labels also must list both the total calories and the percent of calories from fat -- no longer will shoppers have to perform long division in the aisles to determine the latter figure. There are just a few labels visible now, but the NLEA requires all foods to carry the labels by May of next year.
"Standardizing serving sizes will make it easier" for people to understand the labels, Ms. Mathews says. "I think it's probably the best thing they've done."
"Our hope was that one, there would be some standard definitions," says Ms. Obester, "and that the definitions would mean something. We wanted modern health concerns -- concerns over fat and sodium -- to be addressed in a way that is helpful to consumers. "Not that people are stupid, but all of us go through the supermarket as quickly as possible. We don't have time to stop and study things. The new labels are definitely an improvement."
For some people, however, a little interest goes a long way. Standing in the soft-drink aisle at Giant with their son, Richard, 2 1/2 , in the shopping cart, Verna and Kieran O'Connor of Ireland are somewhat bemused by Americans' avid concern over health and nutrition, which she notes, diplomatically, "borders on" fanaticism.
"I usually look for no preservatives," Mrs. O'Connor says. "I try to get as far from that as I can."
But, as far as studying labels to match purchases with nutritional needs, "I don't think we look at that," says Dr. O'Connor, a specialist in geriatric medicine who has just begun a job at Francis Scott Key medical center, "especially in things that don't matter. A water that's sodium-free is probably not good for you if you're sweating."
Whatever their level of concerns, shoppers in the Baltimore area probably won't abandon the quest for a more healthful diet.
Mr. Scher of Giant says: "In some parts of the country, we've heard, or read, that people are saying they're tired of trying to decide, they're going to disregard this information and are going back to less nutritious foods, back to ice cream and hamburgers. We haven't seen that here. We think the trend [toward more nutrition consciousness] will continue."
"THE HEALTHY CHALLENGE"
Are you concerned about good nutrition, but confused about how to practice it? Know you ought to be eating more of some things and less of others, but upset that nutrition professionals seem to keep changing the rules? Curious about what's in your food, but baffled by the information on the labels? Anxious to change, but reluctant to sacrifice the tastes you love?
It's time to take "The Healthy Challenge," a nationally televised "quiz" that will offer information, tips and demonstrations on how to eat a more healthful diet. The quiz -- actually an hourlong program with host Markie Post and guest appearances by other stars such as Robert Urich and Scott Bakula -- airs twice on Oct. 16 (at 2 p.m. and 10 p.m.) and on Oct. 19 (at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.) on Lifetime cable stations.
The quiz is part of "HeartFest," sponsored by the American Heart Association and Healthy Choice, a weeklong campaign to show consumers that good taste and good nutrition aren't mutually exclusive. The quiz will answer practical questions about nutrition, and offer tips on how to balance delicious foods and healthful choices.