& Alan Titchenal Tuesday, March 30, 2010
How do food labels influence your food choices?
A 2009 Food and Health Survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation asked consumers about a variety of factors that influence their food decisions. Over 85% indicated that taste had some or great impact on their decision to purchase a food or beverage. In comparison, price was a major influence on food purchases for 74% , healthfulness for 61% and convenience was indicated by only 52% of those surveyed.
The same survey found that nearly 70% of individuals look at the nutrition facts panel on food labels to help in making their food purchasing decisions. Not surprisingly, the nutrition information most consumers use to make purchasing decisions is not based on meeting nutrient needs, but instead focuses on nutrients and food. components that they believe are linked to health risks.
Question: What specific food label information related to health risks had the greatest influence on consumer purchasing decisions?
Answer: The most commonly used information was calories and the “bad” nutrients that people think they should avoid. Calories were used by 75% of consumers, followed by total fat, sugar, trans fat, sodium, and saturated fat. Less than half of the consumers used carbohydrate, fiber, protein or the vitamin and mineral information to aid their purchasing decisions. Strangely, only 54% used the labeled serving size in their decisions and less used the number of servings in the package.
Q: Why do we consider it strange that serving size was not used by more people in their food decisions?
A: There are two main reasons that serving size should be used in food purchase decision-making. First, without knowing the food serving size along with the servings per package, it is impossible to determine the total amount of calories or nutrients that are being consumed. Second, the serving sizes listed on package labels are considered the “reference amounts” that were customarily consumed per eating occasion by the population when the nation was at a “healthier weight.” These reference amounts are like a mini food history lesson since they serving sizes were very similar to the common portion sizes that people ate at in the 1980's.
Q: What is the difference between serving size and portion size and why does it matter?
A: Today, the serving size on the label is simply the amount of the food that is the basis for the nutritional information. Portion size, on the other hand, is the amount that a person consumes at one sitting. For many people, portion size is greater than serving size. For example, a typical package of dry ramen indicates two servings per package, but most people consume the whole package at one sitting. Therefore, their portion is two servings and the calories and nutrients consumed are twice the amounts listed on the nutrition label.
Q:Shouldn’t people be making food purchasing decisions based on calories?
A: Calories should only be used in conjunction with other nutrient label information. When food decisions are based solely on calories and fat, the importance of meeting nutrient needs is overlooked. This is like making decisions mainly on what you are not consuming.
Joannie Dobbs, PhD, CNS and Alan Titchenal, PhD, CNS
are nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences,
College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, UH-Manoa.
Dr. Dobbs also works with the University Health Service
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