Not any more

Health Canada survey suggests nutrition labels confuse consumers

In Canada on August 11, 2010 at 18:33

OTTAWA — Consumers are utterly confused by the nutrition facts table on the back of prepackaged foods meant to help shoppers make healthier food choices, a new Health Canada survey has found.

The government introduced mandatory nutrition labelling rules for all prepackaged foods in 2003 so consumers could make informed food choices, but focus groups have delivered a blunt message to Health Canada and the food industry. In addition to "virtually ignoring all the information on the right-hand column" that details what percentage of a day’s worth of nutrients the serving provides, "consumers are also perplexed by information relating to serving sizes, which often don’t seem to be realistic."

Consumers are also irked that some nutrients, such as sodium and cholesterol, are measured in milligrams, while others — including fibre and sugars — are measured in grams, according to the final report.

"The combination of various base measures for nutrients in the Nutrition Facts table seems to make the table appear more complicated and confusing," the report says. "In essence, consumers feel that a bit of mathematical wizardry is required to sort through what the information means in terms of how much of the product they should reasonably ingest."

Health Canada enlisted Strategic Council, a market-research firm, to hold eight focus groups in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and St. John’s earlier this year to determine the effectiveness of nutrition labelling rules. The results are being used to help craft an upcoming nutrition-facts education initiative, developed in co-operation with the food industry.

According to the results, most people surveyed felt consumers would need more "personalized, customized information" on the packaging to interpret what the daily percentage value actually means. The respondents also wanted to know for whom the nutritional information was calculated — for example, is it for men or women, the elderly or the young, people of average height and weight or otherwise?

Many participants in the focus groups also shot down a labelling proposal under consideration for larger- and medium-sized packages, indicating "that they would be highly unlikely to read the dense text shown in the options under consideration."

This isn’t the first time Health Canada has received a negative review of the mandatory nutritional facts table, which features 13 nutrients plus calories.

The Centre for Science in the Public Interest called on Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq last December to update the regulations, given it had been seven years since the government overhauled food labels.

"Since then, companies have come up with new schemes to trick consumers. And some older problems were never fixed the first time around."

The group highlighted marketing slogans that now routinely appear on the front of food packaging, trumpeting things like "made with whole wheat," "high in fibre," and "0 trans fat per serving" — even in cases where the percentages are marginal or contain many grams of saturated fats.

And when it comes to the current rules and format of the nutrition facts table, "many harried and inexpert consumers are unable to hone in on the nutrients of key public health importance, decipher the meaning of the ‘% Daily Value,’ or distil the right take-home message about what are healthy amounts of added sugars or sodium in a food," the group told Aglukkaq.

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News

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