LABELING STRENGTHENS HEALTHIER CHOICES, STUDY FINDS

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Green or yellow labels placed on supermarket shelves to mark healthier food choices are effective in guiding African-Americans and others in their grocery shopping, according to a new study from the University of Michigan here.The school worked on the study with 18 Farmer Jack supermarkets in the Detroit area under a grant from Merck Pharmaceuticals and the Michigan Department

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Green or yellow labels placed on supermarket shelves to mark healthier food choices are effective in guiding African-Americans and others in their grocery shopping, according to a new study from the University of Michigan here.

The school worked on the study with 18 Farmer Jack supermarkets in the Detroit area under a grant from Merck Pharmaceuticals and the Michigan Department of Community Health.

The study looked at the effect of the M-Fit Shelf Labeling Program on shopper awareness and behavior, after one year's use in the supermarkets. It used a simple survey given at store exits to 361 shoppers, a cross-section sample that was 67% African-American, 66% female and 84% high school graduates. It found that 56% of those who knew about the program said it guided their choices. Thirty-nine percent said they used the program a little or sometimes, while another 17% used it often or always.

Those who had a heart-related screening, such as a cholesterol or blood-pressure test, in the past year, seemed far more likely to notice the shelf-labeling program than those who had not.

The finding, which adds to similar evidence already gathered among predominantly white populations, was made by dietitians and others from the UM Health System's Heart Care Program and M-Fit Health Promotion Division. It was published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

The program's dietitians analyzed nutrition information for most products in the Farmer Jack stores, and determined which should be given a green "best-choice" or yellow "acceptable-choice" label understandable by shoppers of all education levels. Foods in the total store received the labels on the basis of total fat, saturated fat, fiber, cholesterol and sodium content.

"We try to incorporate the perimeter with separate signs. We don't label each individual fruit or vegetable. We have M-Fit stickers on fresh meats to indicate the leaner cuts, and in dairy we do label the individual product, and we also have milk signs to indicate the healthier milk choices. We try to cover every part of the store. The majority is in Center Store, which is the most neglected area as far as nutrition programs," explained Holly Noble, R.D., coordinator of the M-Fit supermarket program.

The program's recommendations are in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans given by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than 3,760 products received labels, while in-store signs, books and banners helped explain the shelf-labeling program further. About 50% to 60% of food products in an average store can be marked with the green "best choice," or the yellow "acceptable choice," Noble told SN.

The less than ideal choice would be marked in red, as an "occasional choice," but the M-Fit program does not mark those foods. "We are not saying that any choice is bad or that you should never have a particular food. It's more of a ranking.

"In a suburban area you're usually going to find a better variety of healthier choices than in a metro store," Noble noted.

She said the university is looking into technology to combine the University of Michigan's nutritional labeling with the store's own Universal Product Code shelf labeling. "We may have to use a different symboling system, if the store's system cannot print in color. Most don't," said Noble.

Farmer Jack's is no longer in the program, Noble said, but several other retailers in the Midwest are.

For more information, go to www.mfitnutrition.com.