Learning to read the label

by Allison Sebolt
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With all the industry and regulatory discussion of food and nutrition labels and providing helpful information for consumers, research shows consumers still aren’t paying much attention to what is on the label.

When the International Food and Information Council followed consumers who said they were high label readers and users, they found even those consumers who said they read labels regularly didn’t really look at the labels at all.

"What consumers say they are doing versus what they are actually doing is a really important component of consumer research," said Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, director of Health and Nutrition at IFIC.

IFIC also found consumers said they find the serving size information confusing, consumers don’t realize information to help them interpret choices in a daily context exists on the Nutrition Facts Panel, and consumers do not consider their consumption of foods and beverages in the context of daily intake.

In other findings IFIC found consumers said they look at the expiration date more than any other part of the label. According to the 2008 IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey, 69% of consumers said they look at the expiration date, 63% said they look at the Nutrition Facts Panel, and 51% said they look at ingredients.

"Consumers receive a lot of nutrition information on a regular daily basis … the label is one piece or one source of that information," Ms. Reinhardt Kapsak said.

Of those consumers who said they look at the ingredient list, 14% said they are looking for artificial ingredients, and 10% said they are looking for flavors and preservatives.

In addition, consumers said information on calories and total fat was the most important elements they use on the Nutrition Facts Panel.

"A number of companies and retailers are looking for ways to communicate food and nutrition information taking what is on the label elsewhere and put it onto the front," Ms. Reinhardt Kapsak said. "This is happening because a lot of companies are being pushed to make it evident as to the nutritional composition of their products because of the obesity epidemic."

Ms. Reinhardt Kapsak said one of the biggest problems with consumer education is many consumers don’t understand how many calories they need in a day, and most research shows consumers often make food choices in isolation and give little thought of how foods fit into the context of their daily diet.

She said many of the efforts currently under way to help improve consumer awareness aren’t addressing the issue of understanding the role foods play in a daily diet.

Ms. Reinhardt Kapsak said consumers do understand various front-of-package symbols such as Kraft’s Sensible Solutions indicate a food is a healthier or smarter choice, but she said she doesn’t think consumers understand there are criteria in place making products with various symbols a better choice. She also said consumers often don’t even notice these front-of-package symbols.

"Consumer research and consumer education based on that research is key to helping consumers better understand labels," Ms. Reinhardt Kapsak said. "That said, it’s also a very long and somewhat complicated and costly process."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, June 10, 2008, starting on Page 38. Click
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