"As our survey findings suggest, consumers are making their own choices based on little real understanding," said Bienvenido C. Niles Jr, president of ACNielsen Asia Pacific.
"Greater education on food ingredients and labeling is a must and the pressure is on food manufacturers and packaging companies to simplify the message and garner greater trust among consumers in their product claims."
The twice-yearly global ACNielsen Online Consumer Opinion Survey, the largest of its kind, polled over 21,100 respondents in 38 markets from Europe, Asia Pacific, North America, Latin America and South Africa.
The study asked consumers around the world how much they understand food labeling, when they would check labels and what they check for as they do their grocery shopping.
On average, two in ten consumers in Asia Pacific, Europe and North America 'always' check the nutritional labels on packaging, with Latin Americans the most label-minded, where a third of consumers claim to 'always' check labels on packaged food. The most likely occasion for checking the nutritional label, not surprisingly, for an average of four in 10 consumers worldwide, was when trying a product for the first time.
"For manufacturers of packaged goods, the product's nutritional proposition - whether it appeals to the specific selection criteria of the consumer - and the clarity of the information on the nutrition panel are critical at the point of product trial," said Niles.
"Whether the product 'contents' meet the consumers' selection criteria, and how easily the label is understood, can determine whether or not the consumer proceeds to purchase the product, or return it to the shelf."
And while consumers are checking labels, they don't necessarily understand what they're reading. Half of the world's consumers said they only 'partly' understand the nutritional labels on food, with 60 per cent of Asia Pacific's citizens leading the world in this lack of understanding, followed by Europeans (50 per cent) and Latin Americans (45 per cent).
Most conversant with food labeling were the North Americans, with 64 percent claiming to 'mostly' understand food panels.
Out of the 13 Asia Pacific countries, New Zealand was the only country making it into the world top 10 list of understanding food labels, with 61 per cent of Kiwis claiming to 'mostly' understand information on food labels. One in ten consumers in Japan, Korea and Hong Kong however claim they didn't understand the labels at all.
Globally, the ingredients most likely to be checked for by consumers were fat (49 per cent), calories (43 per cent), sugar (42 per cent), preservatives (40 per cent), coloring and additives (36 per cent each). Not surprisingly among the five regions surveyed, consumers in North America and Latin America topped the list for most regularly checking out fat, calorie and sugar levels.
"Consumers the world over are screening out products containing ingredients they consider to be unhealthy for them, and making their own personal decisions about levels of fat, sugar, etc," said Niles.
"It is critical for manufacturers to make their labeling as relevant and clear to their consumers as they can, given consumers are making purchase choices based on the information on the packaging. If they can't understand the label, they may not risk the purchase."