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Headlines > Market Trends

Half of all consumers ignore food labels

By Sarah Hills , 24-Feb-2009
Last updated on 24-Feb-2009 at 13:27 GMT

About half of consumers never read the nutrition label before purchasing pre-packaged food, according to a new survey which adds weight to the Guidline Daily Amounts (GDA’s) debate.

The survey of Irish consumers’ use and understanding of nutrition labels, carried out by Sarah Keogh, an independent consultant dietician, showed that 61 per cent of males and 40 per cent of females never read the nutrition label before purchase.

Understanding of labels was also limited among consumers with only 32 per cent of the population knowing that there is a difference between salt and sodium and only 10 per cent understanding the difference between energy and calories.

The results were highlighted by Ireland’s Nutrition and Health Foundation (NHF), which aims to promote healthy lifestyle and tackle obesity.

Dr Muireann Cullen, Manager of the NHF, said that heart attacks, strokes, and various types of cancer are the leading causes of death in Ireland

She added: “Scientific studies have documented over and over again the role a healthy diet plays in dramatically reducing one’s risk of these diseases and at a time when obesity levels are reaching an all time high, the importance of knowing what you are eating cannot be stressed highly enough.

“Consumers can sometimes find the information on food packages to be confusing. However, once you learn to read a food label, you’re well on your way to making healthy food choices.”

The NHF said that GDA’s make it easier for people to select and enjoy a mix of foods suited to their individual needs, so it is important consumers can read, understand and use them to make informed choices.

Labelling schemes differ between countries and there is currently no legislation regarding a set standard or format for food labelling in Europe. But there is an ongoing debate between the European Parliament and the Council over the possibility of introducing a pan-European food labelling scheme.

The new regulation on food labelling being proposed by the European Commission is similar to the GDA scheme for nutrition labels developed by The Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA).

A spokeswoman for the CIAA told FoodNavigator.com that the findings were quite reassuring as the majority of Irish people do use labelling (only 45% are not).

She said other studies - such a European Food Information Council study which showed that only one in four UK shoppers looked for nutrition information on food packaging in supermarkets - confirm the findings of the Irish survey and together these “support the need of a consumer friendly nutrition labelling scheme”.

She added: “GDA are increasing in usage and understanding throughout Europe (including in Ireland) through familiarity and education.

“By providing at-a-glance GDA’s, responsible companies are making it easy for consumers to make informed choices concerning their diet.”

Julian Hunt, director of communications at the UK’s Food and Drink Federation, said that GDA’s are being rolled out by more manufacturers in Ireland as a way of educating consumers.

He added: “Recent research carried out by independent market researcher Millward Brown indicated that 87 per cent of consumers interviewed found GDA’s a useful way of providing clear and simple information that told them all they needed to know”.

Consumer tips

NHF offers advice on reading food labels. As well as understanding GDA’s, it recommends paying close attention to serving size and the number of servings per container.

It also advises consumers to look for labels with the words fortified, enriched, added, extra, and plus, which indicates additional nutrients such as vitamins and fibre.

Other tips include comparing products, monitoring salt intake and counting calories, particularly for sugar-free or fat-free products.

The survey was based on 536 consumers who were interviewed in supermarkets.

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