The use of nutrition panels

The majority of UK food manufacturers and retailers provide nutrition information on most of their products, at least the 'Big 4', and in many cases the 'Big 4 plus Little 4' (see 'format' under Section 6.2.1 above). However, for as long as a voluntary regime continues, the decision as to whether or not to provide nutrition information is largely a commercial one. The arguments for change will be discussed in detail later in this chapter, but taking points 3, 6 and 8 from the Consumers' Association's research into the factors which are important to consumers when shopping for food as relevant to nutrition, diet and health, 23% of respondents consider this the most important aspect when shopping for foods, and a much higher number of some importance, even though nutrition and health ranked third after price/value for money and quality. Of those asked, 86% recognised a nutrition information panel, although of these only 42% took notice of it, with 33% stating that it was what they took most notice of.

Clearly, nutrition panels are very familiar and the circumstances in which nutrition information panels are used are of note: 36% when buying food not bought very often or never bought before; 34% when comparing two different makes or types of the same product; 26% when checking the nutrition claims made on the front of the pack; 15% never use this information; 15% every time food is bought that has this information on it; 14% have never seen this information.

If we focus on the preferences expressed by those who participated in the survey for presentation of the nutrition panel and the aspects and terms of the current format they found difficult to understand: the easiest to use were those that were clear and easy to read e.g. large print/good for poor eyesight (50%); good layout (general) e.g. simple, clear, neat, in order (in a column) (22%); easy to understand (9%); (other points were: use of highlighting or bold print; distinction between medium and high; showing value per 100 g; familiar/used to it/seen most often.) The most difficult to use were those with poor layout e.g. crammed together, jumbled, a muddle, words run together, cluttered (41%); difficult to read/indistinct/small print (34%); not tabulated nor itemised, not in columns (9%); hard to pick out a particular piece of information (4%).

Terms on a nutrition information panel that were found confusing:

Leaving aside the 88% desire for nutrition information on all food products against the 42% who actually take any notice of it, the provision of nutrition information is evidently the expectation and the norm. The next hurdle is making it helpful and meaningful to consumers.3

Alongside the results of the UK Consumers' Association's research, it is also pertinent to consider the Nutrition Labelling Study Report prepared for the UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods (MAFF) by Research Services Ltd and published in April 1995.4 The purpose of this study was to conduct a quantitative survey on consumers' awareness of nutrition labelling on food products, with the main objective of the research being to find out the extent to which consumers use and understand this type of information. This was particularly timely in terms of baseline information as the new Regulations on nutrition labelling i.e. implementation of the Nutrition Labelling Directive, came into force in March 1995. The study looked at the level of use of nutrition labelling; any problems in its presentation; and dietary habits, including changes in dietary patterns and what consumers thought they should be eating more or less of. The areas examined were:

• The level of usage of nutrition labelling, including level of awareness; who uses nutrition labelling; the nutrients respondents were aware of/looked for

3 Reference: Consumers'Association Nutrition Labelling Research, Brief Summary of Quantitative Survey, 1995 (Tables reproduced by kind permission of the Consumers' Association)

4 Study Report, Research Services Limited (RSL), MAFFJ1366, April 1995

kcals sodium

saturates 11%

per 100 grams 8% per serving 7%

on the label; use of 100 g or per serving information and which was most useful; and how the labelling was used, i.e. to compare different foods or to assess the nutritional profile of individual foods and whether this was in the context of an individual meal or the whole diet.

• Any problems with the way in which the nutrition information was presented, including whether or not the nutrients shown were understood, e.g. energy, sodium, protein and the relationship between carbohydrate and sugar, fat and saturates; whether the units and other terms were understood, i.e. kilojoules, kilocalories, calories, grams, percent RDA; could consumers understand the relationship between per 100g and per portion information? Were consumers able to compare nutrient levels in different products on a 100g and per portion basis? And were consumers able to make judgements about products across the range of nutrients, i.e. products that may be high in fat but differ in their content of saturates?

• The type of diet followed at the moment, including special dietary requirements; changes in diet over the last few years; what people think they should be eating more or less of.

A nationally representative sample of 1000 interviews was used, following an initial qualitative phase for which actual knowledge was tested in a hall test situation. Those interviewed had to be personally responsible for shopping for food for the household or play a significant part in choosing what food was to be bought for themselves or their household. Further tests were incorporated to distinguish between those who were 'nutritionally aware' and those who were less well informed.

Most respondents were aware of nutrition labelling when asked about the information which could be found on foods, 62% mentioning nutrients whilst only 45% mentioned ingredients. The sample was more likely to look for nutrition labelling than look for the ingredients. Nutrition labelling was found to be the primary source of information about the content of foods. Around half the sample claimed to take this information into account when buying or using foods. People who were health conscious were more likely to take nutrition labelling into account than any other subgroup.

Within the nutrition panel, the information of most interest was fat levels (68%). About half those who looked at labels looked for energy levels, whilst sugar, protein and fibre were of less interest.

Overall, 'per serving' information was preferred to 'per 100g' information. (65% of those who looked at labels preferred per serving information against 21% who preferred per 100g information). However, the perceived usefulness of the 'per 100g' information increased among respondents who could understand labels and had a high knowledge of nutrition.

Respondents were most likely to use nutrition information to compare two brands of the same product (49% of those who looked at labels claimed this). They were less likely to use it to compare two different products (only 15% claimed this). They were slightly more likely to use the information to assess products in terms of their whole diet rather than see how products fitted in with the rest of the meal.

The sample was equally divided between those who considered nutrition information useful and those who did not. However, certain subgroups believed it to be more helpful than others did. A large majority (68%) of those who were health conscious considered the information useful. The researchers stated 'if it is the aim of nutrition labelling to be helpful to those who want to use it, it would make sense to see this group as the 'target group', therefore a result of over two-thirds finding nutrition information useful seems encouraging'. Some 53% of females compared to 44% of males claimed nutrition information to be quite useful or very useful. Younger age groups were more likely to find the information useful (62% of those aged 16 to 34, 51% of those aged 35 to 44, 48% of those aged 45 to 64 and 33% of those aged over 65), as were those from higher social grades (60% of ABs, 53% of C1s, 48% of C2s, 43% of DEs). Other subgroups which found the information more useful were those with children in the household (57%); those whose education finished at the age of 19 or over (65%); those who were working (55%); those who were in the household with someone who had a special diet (60%) and those with high nutritional knowledge (61%).

Suggestions for improvement, apart from 'make it easier to understand' were generally in terms of making the print larger and giving more explanation of what the names and numbers meant.

With regard to understanding of the nutrients, fat was the most widely recognised nutrient and the one that respondents considered they knew most about (89% claimed to know something about it). The vast majority stated that individuals should cut down on fat. When comparing two products, over half the respondents cited a lower level of fat as a healthier difference. By comparison, saturates, polyunsaturates and monounsaturates were less well recognised or understood. A proportion of the sample was aware of the need to cut down on saturates and increase polyunsaturates intake. However, compared with the number of respondents looking at fat levels on labels, very few claimed to look for saturate levels. When comparing two products, a very small number cited a lower level of saturates being a healthier difference. The researchers concluded 'it appears that there is a need for people to be made more aware of the implications of high saturate intake'.

Carbohydrate was very widely recognised, but around 25% of the sample claimed not to be sure what it was. Some 27% of respondents claimed carbohydrate intake should be increased whilst 17% believed intake should be reduced. When comparing two products, opinion was divided as to whether carbohydrate should be looked for in higher or lower levels. Fat, sugars, protein, fibre and energy were all more likely to be looked for on a nutrition label than carbohydrate. Sugar and starch were at least as well recognised as carbohydrate, sugar being understood and looked for more than carbohydrate. The vast majority of the sample believed sugar levels should be reduced. However, respondents were also far more likely to believe that starch intake should be reduced. The researchers concluded 'there is a need to educate people on the healthiness of this nutrient'.

Protein was widely recognised, but as with carbohydrate, about a quarter of the sample were not sure what it was. The majority of respondents agreed that intake of protein was beneficial and, when comparing two products, about half of them cited a higher level of protein as a healthier difference.

Fibre was better recognised and understood than either protein or carbohydrate were. Some 84% of the sample claimed to know something about fibre. Over two-thirds of the sample believed fibre intake should be increased, and around half of the sample cited a higher level of fibre to be a healthier difference when comparing two products.

Energy was perceived by respondents as 'calories'. Most respondents (67%) claimed to know something about energy although, again, about a quarter of the sample were not sure what it was. After fat, it was the item of most interest on the nutrition label.

The term 'sodium' was much less well understood than 'salt'. Some 62% of respondents felt salt intake should be reduced, compared with 22% believing that sodium should be reduced. Sodium levels were rarely inspected by those who looked at nutrition labels. A majority of the sample mentioned that a lower level of sodium was beneficial when there was a substantial difference in sodium levels between two products. Only 15% of the sample gave the same answers when comparing salt and sodium levels between two products, suggesting that relatively few respondents were able to equate sodium levels with salt levels.

'Calories' was a term recognised by almost all the sample, and most respondents correctly defined it as a measure of energy. By comparison, the terms 'kilo-calories' and 'kilojoules' were less well recognised and understood. Grams were recognised and correctly defined as a measure of weight by the vast majority of respondents. Few claimed to be aware of the term 'percentage RDA', only about one in ten being able to correctly define this term.

As far as visualising what amount of food constitutes 100g, the sample's performance was generally quite poor, though this was dependent upon the foodstuff in question. Where respondents were given three different amounts of the food to choose from, 28% of the sample gave the correct answer for fish fingers, 30% gave the correct answer for digestive biscuits and 16% gave the correct answer for raisins.

When asked to read figures from a nutrition label, or to make comparisons of nutrient levels between two labels, almost a third of respondents were unable to answer each time. When no calculation was required, the majority of the sample could read 'per 100 g' or 'per packet' information from a label. The declaration 'of which saturates' or 'of which sugars' was understood as well as any other part of the label. Calorific information confused some respondents, bringing the proportion of those who could read this particular statement of information down to around 50%. If a simple calculation was required, less than half of the sample was able to obtain the correct answer. This also applied when comparing nutrient levels between two labels. Most people did not have the ability to make the necessary calculations in their head to convert 'per 100 g' information into information for the whole packet, either when comparing two products or when assessing one product.

The researchers wanted to test how well respondents could assess the product's healthiness taking into account all as opposed to individual nutrients. In comparisons between two products, respondents were good at recognising the healthier product when the healthier differences between the products were to do with the most well known nutrients, for example lower in fat, higher in fibre, higher in protein. Respondents were less likely to recognise the healthier product when the healthier differences between the products involved nutrients which were less well known, for example, lower in saturates, lower in sodium.

Few respondents claimed to be in a household with someone who had special dietary requirements, the most common being a slimming diet which was mentioned by one in ten respondents. However, most individuals claimed to have changed their diet over the last few years, and the most commonly given reason was to 'be healthier'. The foods people were most likely to believe they should be eating less of were fatty foods and sweet things. In terms of what the sample felt they should be eating more of, the most likely responses were fruit and vegetables. The researchers concluded 'most respondents claimed to be concerned about the healthiness of foods although less than half claimed to always choose a healthier food. A strong feeling for enjoying the foods they were eating emerged.' Geographically, respondents in Wales and southern England performed better than those in the Midlands and the north of England. Respondents from Scotland and Northern Ireland were relatively less well informed.

The results of this research galvanised the food industry, both retail and manufacturing, into seeking ways of providing nutrition information in a manner which would be more helpful to consumers.

Further research commissioned and conducted in the UK by the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) in 1996 showed that of those consumers who use the nutrition information on the label, most focus on energy, and to a lesser extent fat, and this finding is slightly at odds with the RSL Report. The research also indicated that many consumers have little knowledge of how much energy, in terms of kilocalories or kilojoules, they need per day and little idea of what guideline targets are with respect to fat. As indicated in the previously listed research results, few understood the meaning of the term 'saturates', especially in the given format where it is indicated under fats as 'of which ...', and the concept of kilo-joules was not understood at all. Most respondents said that 'per serving' information was generally found to be more helpful than 'per 100g/100ml', although the latter was useful when making comparisons between products at point of sale.

As a result of this research, proposals were drawn up for highlighting calories and fat on the nutrition label, and the UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods (MAFF) and Department of Health (DH) were consulted about Guideline Daily Amounts of calories and fat and values were agreed for both men and women. Various formats were tested on consumers and, as a result, a scheme for supplementary voluntary nutrition labelling was launched in February 1998.5 The details of this scheme are set out in the next section.

5 Voluntary Nutrition Labelling Guidelines to Benefit the Consumer - Supplementary to legislative nutrition labelling requirements, Institute of Grocery Distribution, 1998

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