The Food and Drug Administration on May 6 released results of its 2014 Health and Diet Survey that indicated most consumers have referred to the Nutrition Facts Panel when making food purchasing decisions. At the same time, the survey revealed a sizable minority still did not use the Nutrition Facts Panel or were confused about some of the information it contains. The release of the survey results came as the F.D.A. prepares to issue new final rules to update the Nutrition Facts Panel and serving sizes for packaged foods.
The F.D.A. said it surveyed 2,480 adults in the 50 states and the District of Columbia from June to August 2014. It was the eleventh such survey conducted since 1982, and it will help the agency “make informed regulatory, educational and other decisions with a better understanding of consumer knowledge, attitudes and practices about current and emerging nutrition and labeling issues.”
The survey confirmed the utility of the Nutrition Facts Panel. Seventy-seven per cent of U.S. adults reported using the
Nutrition Facts Panel always, most of the time, or sometimes when buying a food product. The breakout was 16% always use the label when deciding to buy a food product, 34% used the label most of the time and 27% used the label sometimes. Twenty-two per cent of respondents said they rarely or never referred to the Nutrition Facts Panel.
“Half of those who reported they rarely or never use the label said they did not feel they needed to use the label, most likely because they bought products that they or their family liked or they were satisfied with their diet or health,” the F.D.A. said.
When considering individual product categories, respondents referred most often to the Nutrition Facts Panel when buying breakfast cereals. Thirty-three per cent of consumers said they always referred to the panel when selecting a breakfast cereal, 23% said they referred to the label most of the time and 23% said they sometimes referred to the label.
Following breakfast cereals, consumers referred to the Nutrition Facts Panel most often in the case of bread (77% said they referred to the label always, most of the time or sometimes), salad dressings (76%) and snacks such as chips, popcorn or pretzels (75%). Respondents referred to the Nutrition Facts Panel less often in the case of raw meat, poultry or fish (59% said they always, most of the time or sometimes consulted the label) and processed meat products like hot dogs or bologna (63%).
Seventy-nine per cent of adults said they used the label often or sometimes when buying a product for the first time.
“When the label was used, it was most often used to find out the nutrient contents of a product or to compare nutrient contents between products, lack of interest was the primary reason cited for not using the label at all,” the F.D.A. noted.
The survey included an entire section on sodium. Nearly all adults (89%) thought Americans eat more salt than they should and that those who are 51 years and older or who have chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should pay special attention to their salt intake.
Fifty-one per cent of adults said consumers’ own actions may be the most effective way to reduce the amount of salt or sodium people eat. Twenty-five per cent said actions taken by food manufacturers and retailers may be the most effective way to reduce sodium consumption. Five per cent of consumers said actions taken by the restaurant industry would be the most effective, and 5% said government action would be the most effective. Adults also said packaged/processed foods and restaurant-prepared foods were the major sources of their salt intake.
Seventy-five per cent of respondents said they believed salt or sodium in the products they purchase at grocery stores had more or about the same amount of sodium as they did five years ago; only 16% said they thought sodium content in these products was lower.
Sixty-eight per cent of adults said they were very concerned (26%) or somewhat concerned (42%) about the amount of salt or sodium in their diet.
Ninety per cent of respondents said they had seen products labeled “low salt,” “low sodium,” or “reduced sodium.” Twenty-five per cent of consumers said they regularly purchase products so labeled, and 46% said they purchased them sometimes. Twenty-nine per cent of respondents said they hardly ever or never purchased such products.
Eighty-five per cent of respondents acknowledged they should eat reduced or low-sodium products. At the same time, 62% said reduced or low-sodium products generally don’t taste as good as regular products, 56% said reduced or low-sodium products usually cost more than regular products, and 57% said such products are not always available in the store.
The survey revealed some confusion among consumers about fats. Almost 9 in 10 adults said they had heard of trans fat, saturated fat and omega-3 fatty acids, but nearly a quarter of those aware of these fats could not tell whether each fat raises, lowers or has no relationship with the risk of heart disease.
The survey also posed questions aimed at revealing consumer understanding and use of health claims on packaging. Asked whether they used front-of-package claims such as “low in sodium” or “rich in antioxidants” when deciding to buy a product, 31% of respondents said they did so often, 38% said they did sometimes and 31% said they rarely or never considered those claims when purchasing a product.
The survey revealed consumer skepticism regarding health claims. Asked whether they thought such claims (“low in sodium” or “rich in antioxidants”) accurately described the foods so labeled, 9% of consumers said all such claims were accurate, 26% thought most of the claims were accurate, 53% believed some of the claims were accurate, and 11% said none of the claims were accurate.
Similar attitudes were indicated as consumers considered claims stating “contains no added sugar” or “no sugar added.” Seventy-three per cent of consumers indicated they often or sometimes used this information when purchasing a product. But only 37% believed all or most of such claims accurately described the foods so labeled. Fifty per cent believed the claims were accurate for some of the products, and 12% didn’t believe the claims were accurate at all.