William and Sarah Jenney need to limit the amount of sugar and salt they eat, so when they buy groceries for the week, they read all the labels. It's always time-consuming, and occasionally confusing.
"There's always something on the package that says, 'heart smart' or 'healthy' or 'light,' " said William Jenney, who was shopping at Giant Food in Glen Burnie one recent day with his wife, Sarah, as well as a fistful of coupons. "Who knows what it all means. We just read all the labels."
When Jenney heard that Giant had begun using its own labels on store shelves to steer shoppers to the healthy food - as determined by nutrition experts using government guidelines - he thought more information was better.
Giant officials hope so. And so do those at Supervalu, parent of Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, which launched a similar program. The two grocery chains said they started their programs because Americans don't eat right. Consumers are overwhelmed by nutritional information or too busy to consistently look at it.
The pair join the list of restaurants, food manufacturers and smaller markets that also have labeled their products with nutritional information or made easy-to-digest information available. Facing the costs of increasing obesity and health problems, some lawmakers also have required larger eateries in their cities to display calorie counts and other data so consumers can make healthier food choices.
Some critics are concerned that the new messages will be drowned out by the litany that already exists - to varying degrees of meaningfulness. But the grocers both say they believe they have found the best, unbiased systems to cut through the rest.
"I'm a mom of two little boys, and I don't have time when I shop to turn over every package to look at the nutritional facts," said Andrea Astrachan, a consumer adviser for Giant, which has 128 stores in the Mid-Atlantic. "We wanted to make it easier for the ones doing the shopping by having one simple symbol to denote the healthy foods."
Under Giant's program, called Healthy Ideas, a team of nutrition experts is using Food and Drug Administration nutrition guidelines and the Department of Agriculture food pyramid to identify items that could generically be labeled healthy. So far, 3,800 packaged foods have been tagged with a special icon, or almost 6,000 items if fruits and vegetables are counted. More will be added as they are examined. A typical store has tens of thousands of items.
At Supervalu, the program is called nutrition iQ and will be rolled out over the next six months at the 65 Shoppers in the Mid-Atlantic. The chain worked with nutrition experts at the Joslin Clinic, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, to evaluate food for the healthiest choices based on FDA criteria.
Unlike Giant's single-tag system, Supervalu products will get one of seven color-coded tags. For example, those that are good sources of fiber will get an orange tag, those that are good sources of calcium will get blue tags, low-calorie items will get purple tags, and so on.
Supervalu will begin with such items as cereal and dairy products and move onto deli, bakery, produce and other foods. The company estimates that eventually about 10 percent of the 60,000 items in the store will carry a tag.
Company officials say most shoppers don't have time to read packages or are inundated by labels required by government and added by manufacturers. Still, they decided on multiple tags because shoppers may have different nutrition needs.
"When someone is in a rush, this draws attention to the bright colors," said Kim Kirchherr, a registered dietitian who works for Supervalu. "If you're looking for something with high fiber, you can compare a few products."
She said improved eating habits could help tackle some intractable problems facing the country: Two-thirds of adults are overweight, childhood obesity is at an all-time high and heart disease is the nation's No. 1 killer.
Others have already begun to address the problems: The Council of Better Business Bureaus launched the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in 2006, and 15 food companies, including Kellogg Co. and General Mills Inc., have pledged to use half their youth advertising budgets to promote healthy eating.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, reports that several state and local governments, including New York City, Philadelphia and California, have passed laws requiring some form of nutritional disclosure on chain restaurant menus such as calorie and fat content.
And YUM! Brands, parent of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, has added calorie counts to its menus nationwide. Others, including Dunkin' Donuts and Au Bon Pain, have introduced menus with healthier items and smaller portion sizes and eliminated trans fats.
Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI, said moves such as calorie counts on menus have been well received by consumers. Congress is expected to consider legislation this year that would take that nationwide.
As for the grocery labels, he said they, too, could offer help to some consumers. But, he said, a consistent nationwide program sponsored by the government would garner more trust from the public overwhelmed with labels that make various, sometimes dubious, health claims. His group is advocating a study to determine the best system of labels and then a mandate for manufacturers to boldly display an icon on the front of their packages, rather than on store shelves.
"There is the issue of label fatigue," he said. "Who knows if people are listening anymore. A certain percentage of the population will listen, but with the government behind one system, it would have greater support."
Consumers, for their part, do seem befuddled. A survey conducted last year by the American Dietetic Association showed that 67 percent of consumers thought diet and nutrition were "very important," but about half said they "weren't doing more" to improve their diet because they needed tips to eat better. More than 40 percent said they didn't know or understand nutritional guidelines. These were increases from a similar survey conducted in 2000.
At the grocery store, some consumers said government data on the back panel are more trustworthy than manufacturer labels on the front.
"I just turn every package around and take a look at the nutritional information," said Alisa Chappell of Westminster, who was shopping recently at the Glen Burnie Giant for cereal with her 7-year-old son, Ian. "But you do have to know what you're looking for or it can be confusing. I pay attention to sugar and fat and salt."
Chappell said she hadn't noticed Giant's new tags, which began showing up about a month ago and were small - some shoppers said too small - and tucked next to the price on the shelf. But after learning about them, she said they would be helpful if she was in a hurry and didn't have time to read every label on unfamiliar products. The Golden Grahams chosen by Ian and approved by Chappell did have a Healthy Ideas tag.
Eric Coles of Severna Park said he isn't always a label reader and also thought claims made by manufacturers on their packages were suspect. But he said Giant's new tag, from independent analysts, may be enough to sway him when differences aren't obvious.
Indeed, he and his 2-year-old daughter, Emilia, walked off with Hunts crushed tomatoes, which had a tag, instead of the store brand that did not after a quick look at the nutritional data showed similar values. (Closer inspection revealed that the store brand based its data on a smaller serving size, so the same amount of Hunts had less salt and calories.)
It's those pitfalls, and that level of investigation, that the grocers are hoping to eliminate.
"We realize there is a lot of information out there for consumers to digest and understand," said Haley Meyer, a spokeswoman for Supervalu. "As a national grocery company, we felt we had an opportunity, even an obligation, to serve as a conduit for information."
In the end, the stores will not likely know how many shoppers continue to buy food based on cost or taste and how many will factor in another label.
William Jenney said he will read the grocers' labels. But he won't stop reading the others, either.
Giant Food's Healthy Ideas
* Products that meet government guidelines for nutrition will get a tag labeling them healthy.
* So far, 3,800 packaged foods have been given a label, or almost 6,000 items if fruits and vegetables are counted. More will be added as they are examined.
* The labels will be applied to national and store brands and to all price levels in the stores.
* Giant has 128 stores in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Supervalu's nutrition iQ
* Products will get one of seven color-coded tags for: good sources of fiber (orange), calcium (blue), protein (yellow), low calorie (purple), low sodium (dark green), low saturated fat (red) and whole grains (dark orange).
* Eventually, an estimated 10 percent of the store's approximately 60,000 items will get a label.
* Candy, cookies, coffee, bottled water and other items that are too high in fat, sugar or salt or lack nutritional value will be excluded.
* Supervalu has 65 Shoppers Food & Pharmacy stores in the Mid-Atlantic region.