David Goehring, California, US
With more and more consumers riding the trend for healthier foods and living in recent years, food manufacturers play an even more important role in helping consumers get the products they want. It is of vital importance that consumers not only understand nutrition in theory, but are able to make informed decisions in practice at the grocery store or supermarket.
Although making appropriate food choices seems like an easy task, the average consumer may actually find it difficult to fully understand nutrition labels on packaging, and hence products and their contents.
Recommended some 10 years ago by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a strategy to aid consumers in making informed judgements about a product, nutrition labels on food and beverage packaging are compulsory and presented in a variety of formats today.
However, if these labels are not presented appropriately, consumers may view them as a mountain load of information that add to their confusion.
How then can food manufacturers ensure sufficient, if not maximum, understanding of their products by consumers, so that they can make the right choices for themselves?
Nutrition labels are widely used by consumers around the world to gauge a product’s content. A 2008 US survey found that approximately half of US consumers read food labels when buying a product for the first time, two-thirds use it ‘often’ to check caloric and other content like salt, vitamins and fat, and 38 percent use it to check nutrient content claims (e.g. low fat, high fibre, cholesterol-free).
Despite the high usage of these labels, consumer confusion when it comes to understanding the products themselves is not at all uncommon.
In fact, a 2012 worldwide survey by Nielsen found that 59 percent of consumers have difficulty understanding nutritional facts on food packaging, and only 52 percent understand the labels ‘in part’. Seven percent do not understand them at all.
Before tackling this consumer confusion, it is essential to understand the reasons that cause it.
Redundant Information And Overload
ilovebutter, Texas, US
The common informative items included on packaging are the ingredients list, nutritional facts—information about content and their percentages per serving, and where the product was made or manufactured in.
Though they may be required or essential, for the consumer, this information can be overwhelming, and may serve to further confuse them.
A two-year study by the Food Advisory Committee under the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that consumers were often misled by manufacturers who input ‘meaningless descriptions’ onto their products. Also, terms such as ‘traditional’, ‘original’ or ‘farmhouse’ added to the confusion of three quarters of the consumer respondents.
To avoid inserting redundant information onto packaging, manufacturers can sift out required information and state them concisely, reducing wording and likelihood of confusion for consumers.
With regard to trusting the labels, in Nielsen’s 2014 worldwide survey, only 63 percent of consumers believe that all or most of the health claims on food packages are true. Even fewer trust them in Europe (51 percent) and the US (56 percent).
This distrust stems from the possible use of ‘power of packaging’ by food manufacturers, who, in an attempt to capture consumers’ eyes and interests, play up or down nutritional content.
For example, a product may claim ‘low fat’, but unbeknownst to the consumers, the product may actually have higher amounts of other nutrients like salt or sugar.
With ‘natural’ claims too, the FDA has to date not given a definition to the term, and allows manufacturers to put a ‘natural’ claim on products as long as they do not contain added colour, artificial flavours, or synthetic substances.
This claim, however, can be misleading as consumers then expect the products to be 100 or almost 100 percent natural, with no added chemical substances used in the process.
However, without a specific definition, there is no regulation to say that a product’s contents cannot be natural ingredients that have been processed into artificial ones, or that meat cannot be from animals raised with daily antibiotic doses and/or growth hormones.
Consumers therefore find it harder to trust ambiguous claims such as ‘low fat’, ‘high fibre’ or ‘all natural’, and are more likely to trust concrete ingredient-based content instead such as amount of calories, fat or salt, that have specific numeric values and percentages per serving.
Manufacturers should make integrity a priority when they put claims on their products in order to serve their consumers better, rather than use the claims as a marketing strategy to increase sales profit.
Dr Iain Brownlee, director of operations for Food and Human Nutrition at Newcastle University in Singapore, commented: “The overconsumption of certain vitamins and minerals in the diet is just as harmful to health as not consuming them in high enough quantities.”
As a result, consumers may be further confused as to how to balance their daily nutrient intakes, especially with products that are fortified or have added nutrients. However, Dr James Bauly, marketing director of DSM Nutritional Products Limited, shared: “Most of the industry has accounted for this, and manufacturers only add a portion of required daily quantity for a particular micronutrient, about 15 or 30 percent.”
Consumers need not worry about consuming too much of the required nutrients as even if they eat many different foods together, it is likely they will not overconsume, he assured. It would still be advisory for consumers not to specifically consume too much of products they know contain the same nutrients within a single day, he advised.
Include Wanted Information
A rising consumer demand in many parts of the world is for more transparency and clarity by food manufacturers, with regard to traceability of the product’s contents. This refers to information on the origins of the product, from the country, down to the farm it was produced in and how it was produced.
Especially in Europe and the US, more consumers want to know more about where exactly their food comes from, or the manner in which their food was produced. Food manufacturers therefore can include a short description for this on their packaging for consumers.
Regulations between countries differ currently for the amount and type of information placed on packaging. Generally, many countries follow the non-mandatory Codex Alimentarius Commission, established by FAO and WHO that aimed to standardise nutritional guidelines on food and beverage packaging.
Governments have built up on this and also initiated their own regulations. For example, the Codex recommends that energy, proteins, total fats and carbohydrates should be listed on the label. Indonesia, however, requires a declaration of sodium as well, and Thailand further requires the amount of sugar to be stated.
Multiple efforts to date have been made to simply these systems across countries, stated Dr Brownlee.
One example is that of the European Union (EU). Established in 2006, their ‘Register of Nutrition and Health Claims’ has implemented measures such as adopting appropriate nutrient profiles for foods so as enhance consumers’ ability to make informed and meaningful choices.
“Since the legislation was passed, it hasn’t been perfect but it was a first step,” said Dr Bauly, in his opinion of how the EU regulations have turned out today.
“With the complex transition of harmonisation, people weren’t sure how to implement it or did not understand the rules. Naturally there were teething problems and localised challenges, like having to reconfigure manufacturing processes or adapt labelling,” he added.
Today, the countries of the EU generally follow these guidelines with all products. Southeast Asia too, aspires for a similar harmonisation of food and beverage regulations with the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of 2015.
Like the problems that first occurred in the EU with the passing of the legislation, Dr Bauly also expects to see it here in Southeast Asia. “Harmonisation in general is ambitious, but at least with a deadline, it will be a first step,” he assured. Besides standardisation of such information on product packaging, Dr Brownlee also suggested: “Perhaps other than more regulations, increased focus should be placed on how consumers perceive information.”
By knowing this, perhaps food manufacturers can come up with more effective ways to present information to consumers that will allow them to understand the products precisely and aid them in making their decisions.
Ultimately, consumers around the world deserve to have equal opportunities in choosing the right products for themselves for their health and nutrition.
Consumers’ understandings of product content should be a manufacturer’s priority so informed decisions can be made about whether to buy or consume something. Without this, it would be akin to leaving consumers to purchase their goods in a very dimly lit supermarket, that would influence their buying decisions.