Research casts doubt on benefit of nutritional labelling

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Healthy eating Nutrition

Knowing more about the nutritional value of foods does not equate to increases in healthy eating and reductions in obesity, according to the findings of new research.

The study – published in the British Food Journal​ – casts doubt on the notion that providing nutritional information is an effective way to encourage healthy eating habits.

Led by researchers at the University of Laval in Canada reports that consumers in the United States of America know significantly more about the fat content of foods they buy than consumers inFrance. Despite this significantly higher nutritional knowledge, the authors report that levels of obesity almost three times higher in the USA than in France.

The researchers, led by Professor Maurice Doyon fromLaval, say the findings outline an important paradox – arguing that the correlation found between extensive nutritional knowledge and high obesity rates could mean that focusing on detailed nutritional information might not be the best strategy for encouraging healthy eating habits.

"It's an approach that presents information to consumers in a broken down form,"​ said Doyon.

"This may lead them to think of food in terms of its fat, carbohydrate, and caloric content and lose sight of the whole picture. It might be better to focus on what constitutes a healthy, complete, and balanced meal."

A new French paradox?

Doyon and her team questioned more than 300 consumers from France, Quebec, and the USA. The questionnaire was designed to test what the consumers knew about dietary fats – questions dealt with the amount and types of fat contained in various foods and what the nutritional recommendations are regarding these fats.

The research team revealed that French respondents admitted to not knowing the answer to 43% of the questions, while the equivalents for Quebec and theUnited Stateswere 13% and 4% respectively.

They found that 55% of French respondents said they did not know the percentage of fat in whole milk, compared with 5% forQuebecand 4% for theUnited States– with a similar trend revealed for the fat content of butter, margarine, and vegetable oils.

Doyon and her colleagues also found that when participants tried to answer, Americans were most likely to be right. Consumers fromQuebecwere found to be the second most accurate at guessing, with French consumers found to be the least accurate.

"The difference among respondents' knowledge essentially indicates that the French don't take much of an interest in the nutrients contained in the foods they eat. The information is on the package, but they don't read it,”​ said Doyon.

Despite this lack of nutritional awareness, the French nation has almost three times less incidence of obesity than the USA (12% obesity vs. 35%) – a paradox which the researchers suggest could mean that nutritional labelling has very little real world effect on the fight against fat.

Source: British Food Journal
Volume 114, Issue 1, Pages 108 – 120, doi: 10.1108/00070701211197392
“Consumer knowledge about dietary fats: another French paradox?”
Authors: L Saulais, M Doyon, B Ruffieux, H Kaiser

Related topics Science Policy Labelling

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1 comment

Good research - deserves a close look

Posted by Dr Aaron,

This study indicates there are two likely problems with America's approach to nutrition:
1. We are larding up food labels with irrelevant nutrition facts that are easily manipulated by food producers without real added nutritional benefit. Are low fat, high fiber, low sodium, sugarless, artificially sweetened cookies a healthy choice? Obviously not, but those terms all make them sound healthy.
2. We are not educating Americans about the most fundamental idea to good nutrition - eat real whole foods, not processed foods. What are the French eating? Real food, including real fat.
Change labeling on food to a simple scale of how processed it is, and it might be more useful.

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