By: David Schmidt, President & CEO, International Food Information Council Foundation Date: 2/25/11
Last Fall, the International Food Information Council Foundation embarked on an ambitious consumer study to examine a potential “short-cut” to the Nutrition Facts Panel on food packages in the U.S. that may enable consumers to make more informed decisions on the foods they purchase for their diets. Neither IFIC nor our Foundation takes positions on regulations or legislation, but we do appreciate opportunities to provide insights on how consumers or other stakeholders may react to certain food and agricultural policies that may affect their daily lives.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association provided a grant to the International Food Information Council Foundation to support this consumer research project designed to test consumer knowledge, ease of understanding, and interpretation of varying amounts of nutrition information presented in a uniform format on the front of generic food product packages.
The Foundation engaged Perception Research Services, Inc. (PRS), of Princeton, NJ to conduct a nationally representative survey of nearly 7,400 primary U.S. grocery shoppers via online survey in the Fall of 2010. This represents the largest sample for any single IFIC or IFIC Foundation survey to date, and it is well above the sample sizes of government, academic, and other surveys that have examined front-of-pack (FOP) labeling formats. Most importantly, such a large sample gives us even more statistical confidence in the validity of our findings and allowed for oversampling of economic level and education levels.
The survey tested three different FOP formats against a control (no FOP information): calories-only, calories plus 3 nutrients to discourage (saturated fat, sodium, total sugars) and calories plus 3 nutrients to discourage plus up to 3 nutrients to encourage (protein, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber or folate).
The FOP symbols were tested on four different categories: dry ready-to-eat breakfast cereal, frozen entrees, salty snacks and salad dressing. Each product category had three different generic (non-branded) products that were ranked based on their content of nutrients to discourage.
We found that, in general, increasing the amount of nutrition information on the front of the package helped consumers to better identify the different nutritional values for products and was helpful in making an informed decision.
For all respondents, the inclusion of positive nutrient information on the FOP maintained and often increased people’s comprehension, ease of understanding, and ability to interpret the nutrition information provided relative to those respondents who were presented with calories plus three nutrients to discourage.
Consumers were more frequently able to accurately find and state nutritional content when the relevant information appeared on the FOP. Consumers agreed that increasing the amount of nutrition information on the FOP helped them to better understand the daily nutritional values for products, was helpful in making an informed decision, and should be included on more food products.
When the data were analyzed by socio-economic indicators such as income, education level, and race/ethnicity, only education level had any consistent and significant impact on consumer comprehension and comfort with the information provided. Higher levels of formal education were positively associated with expressed ease of understanding and comprehension of nutrition information. Across all education levels, those with more FOP information presented to them demonstrated higher comprehension and the more the information on the front of pack is used. The study also found the improvement in comprehension of the nutrition information provided on the front of the package was greatest among those with the lowest level of education.
Based on our findings, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute announced earlier this year that their manufacturing and retail members will launch the “Nutrition Keys” voluntary labeling system along with an extensive consumer education campaign to help consumers make more informed choices on the foods that they include in their diets. Only time will tell whether this labeling system will truly impact the quality of our diets and enhance our health. But at least we know from the IFIC Foundation research that when given the right information in the right “portions” consumers can make better choices. When we don’t make better choices, even though we know better, it indicates other factors that impact motivation and behavior are part of the equation.