The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Consumer Use of Food Labels, Part I

Consumer Use of Food Labels, Part I

Shoppers and Trends

July 27, 2008

Food labels may not always be effective communication tools for consumers and could likely stand to be improved, according to research conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) and other global organizations. The research, presented at the World Congress on Public Health Nutrition, conveyed the difficulties in expressing health messages to consumers through labels.
The goal of nutrition labeling is to help consumers make more healthful food choices. Labels are used in all countries, but worldwide labeling differs slightly. In the US, labels are required and listed in a Nutrition Facts Panel or NFP.
In the EU, labeling is not mandatory unless a nutrition claim is made. They label foods according to what they call “nutrient declaration” groups. Group 1 refers to energy value, amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, while group 2 refers to sugars, saturated fat, fiber and sodium. A voluntary nutrition labeling system called Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) is currently in the works.
As an informational tool, food labels represent an important source for nutritional facts. Among Canadian and US customers, food labels can be influential in encouraging dietary changes. Self-reported label users in Canada and the EU tend to be older consumers, parents and women. EU and US consumers are the most likely to look at food labels when buying food or beverage items for the first time.
Studies suggest, however, that actual food label use is lower than self-reported use. And consumer understanding in this area ranges considerably. US consumers have a difficult time factoring caloric information into their overall daily diet. In fact, 89% of US consumers incorrectly estimate their daily calorie needs, even as 75% of them say they use caloric information most often when reading the Nutrition Facts Panel.
“There’s a lot of confusion about nutrition, period. Consumers are confused overall about what they should be eating, and most consumers bring prior information and perceptions with them when evaluating food and beverage products,” says Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, Director of Health and Nutrition for IFIC.
When it comes to serving size, consumers are unclear on what a “serving” actually is. US consumers in particular have difficulty making the connection between metric units, like grams, and “visual portions,” like slices or cups. In terms of nutrient recommendations, the majority of Americans check labels for fat content and serving size, paying less attention to vitamin content or daily values (DVs). Indeed, US consumers are actually quite unclear on how to relate percent DV to their overall daily diet.
Perceptions of health claims fluctuate as well. Asian consumers prefer health claims that come from a third-party endorsement, but they are inclined to lump together health claims from both modern nutrition science and traditional medicine.
US consumers use labels to learn more about the connection between diet and disease, but they are unaware of the regulatory process involved in actually getting nutrition claims on a label. It’s also possible that label language may be overly complex for many consumers to absorb, and this is true regardless of country. Reinhardt Kapsak says this is why many manufacturers and retailers are getting involved.
“Many manufacturers and retailers are reaching out to help consumers make healthful choices based on the nutritional information that’s out there. Some are doing it by pointing directly to a product line. Others are taking what’s on the shelf and helping consumers pick items based on an in-store ratings system. Another trend is front-of-the-pack labeling,” says Reinhardt Kapsak.
In some instances, front-of-the-pack labeling is literally taking information from the Nutrition Facts Panel and pulling it to the front of the pack. In this way, manufacturers can choose certain nutrients and/or note which products are “better for you” with symbols. The Keystone Center, a non-profit organization that looks at scientific dilemmas, is currently bringing together influential groups to look at the benefits of this type of labeling with the goal of establishing criteria and a symbol identifying healthful selections that multiple stakeholders could implement across numerous food categories.
Ultimately, the research from IFIC and others suggests that improvements in nutrition labeling could help facilitate a consumer’s ability to make more healthful decisions. Since different consumers view labels in different ways, cultural and lifestyle drivers will have to be taken into consideration when developing nutrition education for various populations.
“Consumer interest in food and nutrition information is at an all time high, but we know that there hasn’t been sufficient nutrition education in our country,” says Reinhardt Kapsak. “That should probably start at a young age.”
An overview from the FDA on how to use the US NFP is available here: