Do you ever wonder if some consumers’ eyes glaze over when they see the “Nutrition Facts” Panel (NFP) on the back or side of a food package? Or do questions like, “How do I do the math…what does this mean?” pop into your head? Have you ever thought that a single serving of certain foods or beverages—as specified on the food label—isn’t realistic? Or do you just throw your hands up in frustration and eat the entire package anyway?
Chances are many consumers around the world share the same sentiments. Nutrition labeling aims to help people make informed decisions about what they eat and drink. Providing information about the nutrient content of foods and beverages is also intended to play a supportive role in nutrition education. However, consumer research conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation and other global organizations suggests that food labels may not always be effective communication tools.
This article talks about the global experience of consumers based on research findings that point to the commonalities and differences in their perceptions and use of the food label. This research was the subject of a workshop at the first World Congress on Public Health Nutrition held in Barcelona, Spain on September 29, 2006, and a global Web cast on March 9, 2007.
Consumer knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors
Consumer views about the food label may be understood in the context of their current knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to food, nutrition, and health.
Research indicates that across North America, the European Union (EU), and Asia, consumers are aware of the link between food and health. Knowledge and positive attitudes toward nutrition information tend to increase with higher levels of education and income. In the US, more than half of consumers say their diet is healthful, and for those who are trying to make dietary changes, the primary reason is to improve overall health. In Canada, maintaining good health is a major factor influencing consumers’ food choices. However, taste and price are also key drivers in food and beverage purchase decisions, with convenience factors significantly affecting food choices—especially in Asia, Canada, and the US where a greater proportion of food is eaten outside of the home.
Consumer use of food labels
As a source of information. Food labels represent one of consumers’ major sources of nutrition information. After health professionals (physicians and dietitians) and word-of-mouth sources (family and friends), food labels represent one of the most credible and influential sources influencing dietary changes among Canadian and US consumers.
Who are food label users. Self-reported food label users in Canada and the EU tend to be older consumers, parents, and women. Consumers who are more inclined to read food labels in Canada are those claiming to have very good to excellent eating habits and are knowledgeable about nutrition. US consumers who are interested in health because they have specific health concerns are more likely to look at the NFP. Overall knowledge of nutrition information among Asian consumers is low, but self-reported use of food labels is high when the information is perceived to be credible and relevant. In general, however, observational studies suggest that actual use of the food label is lower than self-reported use.
When and why labels are read. EU and US consumers are more likely to look at food labels when buying food or beverage items for the first time. The presence of nutrition claims on the front of the package and similar prices between products also influence food label use. In fact, making product comparisons is one of the main reasons Canadian and US consumers look at food labels. Americans also read food labels to evaluate products individually and to learn about healthful eating. Canadians cite nutrient content and finding “good-for-you” foods as top reasons for using food label information.
Types of information sought. On the NFP, a majority of North American consumers check calorie information. Total fat content and serving size are the next types of information frequently looked at by US consumers; vitamins, daily values (DVs), and percent DVs are the least used elements of the NFP.
Consumer understanding of food labels
Research shows that consumers’ understanding of the food label varies according to the type of information and label format under consideration.
Even if US consumers say they look at calories, they are not able to put that information in the context of their overall daily diet. According to the 2007 IFIC Foundation Food and Health Survey, more than 89 percent incorrectly estimated their daily calorie needs and 31 percent wouldn’t even venture a guess. In Asia, consumers poorly understand the calorie content of “out-of-home” foods. There is a misperception that local or traditional foods are lower in calories compared with “western” foods (i.e., fast food).
Consumers may need clarity on what a “serving” is. EU consumers said they want per portion/serving information to be included with the “per 100 g /100 ml” nutrient declaration required by the EU Directives on Nutrition Labeling (see sidebar). Whereas serving sizes are provided with the corresponding metric units in the US, consumers find these inconsistent with a “visual portion,” like a slice or cup. Thus, for example, two NFPs that compare 1/2 cup and 2/3 cup of cereal seem confusing because consumers don’t always recognize that they have the same gram weights. Additionally, some products were generally seen as single serve, but could actually be consumed multiple times in the day or shared (e.g. 20 oz soda and 16 oz juice).
Percentages of Nutrient Recommendations.
When expressed as percentages, recommended nutrient intakes facilitate EU consumers’ recall of food label information. However, US consumers do not use percent DV to see how certain nutrients fit in their overall daily diet. They believe these are industry-defined thresholds as compared with science-based, government-regulated standards. Some also think percent DVs describe a product’s composition (e.g. a product listing 10 percent fat DV for total fat per serving is perceived to be made of 10 percent fat).
In Europe where a variety of formats were tested, simplified nutrition labels and front-of-pack information were generally liked by consumers. Qualitative research studies in the US suggest that consumers prefer columnar formats that show grams and percentages side-by-side on the main NFP panel, which means moving DV information up from its current location in the footnote section.
Perceptions of health claims and overall product healthfulness
Health claims confirm a relationship between a food or food component and a health or disease condition. Asian consumers favor health claims supported by nutritional analysis and third-party endorsement (i.e. regulatory bodies), but they do not necessarily draw a distinction between modern nutrition science and traditional knowledge on food-health associations. Because they do not readily recognize the cumulative, long-term impact of diet on health, benefits are perceived in an immediate, short-term perspective.
In the US, health claims promote greater awareness of diet-disease relationships, but most consumers do not understand the regulatory process and the levels of scientific evidence required for various claims. This suggests that simpler language may be preferred. Still, the presence of health claims on the front of packages may yield increased use of the NFP.
More than two-thirds of Canadian consumers cannot recall health/nutrition claims on food products that have attracted their attention over a 12-month period. Those who are most likely to recall claims are those who changed their eating habits or are currently on a popular diet.
In summary, these research findings suggest that improvements in nutrition labeling may facilitate consumers’ ability to make informed and healthful decisions. Taking into account the cultural and lifestyle drivers of consumers’ food choices, valuable nutrition education opportunities can be developed to enhance current understanding and use of the food label.
Food Labels around the World
In countries where regulatory frameworks for nutrition labeling are in place, nutrient declaration on the food label can take on different formats. Here are some examples from Canada, the EU, and the UK.
CANADA. The standard format of the Canadian food label, called the Nutrition Facts Table, is very similar to the US Nutrition Facts Panel in appearance. The horizontal and linear formats are other options for limited space and smaller packages, respectively. See the Food Labeling page under the Food & Nutrition section of Health Canada Web site for more information: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca.
The European Union (EU). Nutrition labeling is currently not mandatory in the EU unless a nutrition claim is made. When this is so, two types of nutrient declarations are permitted: group 1—energy value, amounts of protein, carbohydrate, and fat (the so-called “Big 4”) and group 2—the “Big 4” nutrients plus sugars, saturated fat, fiber and sodium (the “Big 8”). This is based on the 1990 Council Directive (90/496/EEC). All member states, including the UK, have adopted the Directive. (See the EUROPA Web site: http://europa.eu/scadplus/leg/en/lvb/l21092.htm).
Recently, the EU-based food and beverage manufacturers have proposed a voluntary nutrition labeling system called Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs). The front-of-pack GDA logo illustrates at a glance the amount of nutrients and calories each serving/portion of a food/beverage contributes to an average adult’s nutritional needs.
For more information about GDAs, visit the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA) Web site: www.ciaa.be.