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Shopping Smart: Make it habit to read food labels

The majority consumers do read nutritiingredient labels when shopping for food. (Rob Dicker~Sun-Times Media)

The majority of consumers do read nutrition and ingredient labels when shopping for food. (Rob Dicker~Sun-Times Media)

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Updated: August 16, 2011 12:26AM

Reading food labels is an important step in choosing foods that are right for each of us.

We asked our Supermarket Guru consumer panel and our fans on Facebook if and how they read nutrition labels - and we set out to understand how shoppers' label-reading habits differed from food to food. And boy, were we in for some surprises.

Nearly 70 percent of the panel say they always read the nutrition facts and ingredients on a package when food shopping. That's the good news.

It appears consumers also look at different information depending on the product, which sheds some light on why we are not eating as well as we should.

In the beverage aisle, consumers are most concerned with sugars (65 percent), calories (61 percent) and ingredients (61 percent) - which is not surprising. But very few - under 5 percent - look at caffeine content.

When it comes to cakes and desserts, people tend to first look at calories (64 percent), then ingredients (63 percent) and lastly, fats and sugars, possibly to avoid the guilt.

With condiments and sauces, their biggest concern are the ingredients (66 percent), followed by sodium (61 percent) and sugars (54 percent).

In the dairy case it is all about fat, with 64 percent of shoppers saying it is their top concern.

It appears more consumers are taking the time to read up on frozen entrees and meals. Seventy percent seek out the ingredients and sodium content, while 65 percent zero in on calories, 61 percent look at fat and 42 percent look at sugars.

This survey underscores that having one uniform labeling system across all foods and beverages will not satisfy consumers' needs for more information to make proper and healthier food choices, and forcing people to see only calories, fat, etc. is the wrong way path to take.

But perhaps we have all the information we need on labels - we just need to look at both the ingredients and the nutrition facts panel.

One last comment from Facebook fan Jennifer Kupper, which every food and beverage company should read: "I always read nutrition facts and ingredients. If my allergies don't rule it out, then I look twice at the ingredients - I tend to re-shelve the products that need a chemistry degree to figure out.

"My kids are allowed a certain amount of "junk" food, but it's minimal compared to what others allow. Life isn't perfect, but I try."

Phil Lempert is the editor of and reports on the latest trends on NBC's "Today" show, ABC's "The View" and local Chicago news programs. E-mail

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