Food Labeling: Information Provided vs. Information Received

| Nutritional Claims
Posted By: Dusan Ristic


Open Public Consultation in relation with the evaluation on the Regulation on nutrition and health claims made on foods, launched by European Commission, is closing on June 1, 2017. Until the results arrive, what are the news?

As interest of consumers in healthy diet increases, so does the importance of information transfer between the food producer and the consumer. Recent research on the nutritional and health claims shows some interesting results.

In Europe, concerns over the poor nutritional composition of foods featuring health-related claims are unfounded. The research suggests that, even though not always commendable, such foods have, on average, better nutritional composition than foods that do not carry health-related claims. When it comes to nutritional claims in the US, the situation is somewhat different, as the association between particular claim types and nutrient densities varied substantially.

Nutrient density is a balance between beneficial nutrients and nutrients to limit. Among the beneficial nutrients are, per example, proteins, dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals, while nutrients to limit include free or added sugars, saturated fat, sodium. Sometimes, for the sake of simplicity, the nutrient density is explained as a balance between the contents of beneficial nutrients and energy, leading to division into nutrient-dense and energy-dense (or empty-calorie) foods. As mentioned, counter-intuitively, products carrying a low-content claim did not necessarily offer better overall nutritional profiles (or better profiles for the claimed nutrient) than products with no claim. What that actually means is that low-content nutrient claims are not necessarily reliable indicators of a product’s nutritional quality. Per example, a mayonnaise with a “low-fat” claim may still contain significant amounts of fat and may be nowhere near a nutrient-dense food. This is mostly due to the fact that in the US the nutrient thresholds used for the authorization of claims are determined relative to reference foods, not using absolute thresholds across all products and categories. Which means that all we know from the claim on our mayo is that it contains less fat than other similar products on the market.

Among adults willing to eat healthy and judging by the food packaging, 82.16% of the dichotomous substitutive food choices resulted in the healthy option. Roughly, this means one in five substitutive food choices would result in an unhealthy food choice. Further, the authors believe that in reality, the share of healthy choices would be lower as other factors (time, taste, price) would affect the substitutive food choice decisions. Even though it may look obvious, they observed a direct beneficial effect of the actual reading and understanding of specific nutrition information on the healthiness of substitutive food choices made. Interestingly, they also found that, behind the frequency of nutrition information considered and a person’s taste preferences, nutrition literacy had a stronger effect on the share of healthy food choices made than the intention to eat healthy. By only utilizing part of the information (e.g., low-fat or gluten-free), consumers are prone to still make unhealthy choices. The quantity of information considered, particularly using multiple different pieces of information, effects directly the healthiness of choices made.

The findings suggest that, even when people are highly motivated, policy makers and food industry should not forget that consumers need to turn around a product and read and correctly interpret the available information placed on pack as required by law in order to facilitate healthy food choices. All the papers agree in one: nutritional education and literacy must improve, as nutrition literacy proved to be a significant predictor of healthy substitutive food choices.