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The importance of food labels

As more Americans try to eat healthier, consumers are trying to find out more information about the food they purchase at the grocery store. And that means reading the labels. But terms like "organic" and "all natural" can be confusing. Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, hosts of WRVO's health and wellness program "Take Care," recently spoke to NYU professor of sociology and nutrition, Dr. Marion Nestle about how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates food labels and how consumers have demanded changes in those rules.

Lorraine Rapp: The term "100 percent natural" -- would you say that's one of the hot button terms that needs a stricter definition and law enforcement?

Dr. Nestle: Yes, that and "added sugars," I think, are the two big ones that are under discussion right now. I recently signed a petition to the FDA to have "added sugars" added to the nutrition facts label, because there's a difference between added sugars and those that are naturally present -- there's that word again -- naturally present in food. And I think those two go together. People want to know what's being added to their foods. And unless you're a very sophisticated label reader, it's very difficult to figure that out.

Lorraine Rapp: The term "100 percent natural," what does it mean? Do you have to prove anything? How will the FDA make that definition? What's the process that might take place?

Dr. Nestle: The FDA has a very elaborate process. It's regulatory people propose a rule, that rule -- that proposed rule -- gets put in the federal register and then is open to public comment, and interested parties will right in over some period of time. The FDA will then take those comments into consideration, and then do a final rule. And that will go into effect. It takes years.

Lorraine Rapp: Dr. Nestle, can you give us an example of of where that has been successfully done, where consumers have gotten together and forced something to change?

Dr. Nestle: Sure, the trans fat label is an obvious example. The Center for the Science in the Public Interest spent 12 years begging, pleading petitioning the FDA to list trans fats on the food label and eventually the FDA did. And overnight, companies removed trans fats from their products, so there's hardly a processed food in the supermarket that reports any trans fat in its products. I thought that was a great success.

Linda Lowen: Dr. Nestle, the removal of trans fats occurred at a time, probably, when social media, blogging and all that information sharing wasn't really going on. Do you see this ability for consumers to band together to be an effective mode of implementing change?

Dr. Nestle: Well, it can be if it's not overused. I mean, certainly, the blogger who was concerned about the beef product in hamburger, referred to unattractively as pink slime, generated hundreds of thousands of signatures on a petition to get that product labeled and out of the food supply, and that was a very effective use of social media. Others are less successful. If you get the attention of the press and you get the attention of people who are sending a lot of viral messages around, you can be very effective in generating a lot of attention to your issue.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show, Sunday at 6:30 p.m.  Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.