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Food Manufacturers Need to Label Products More Clearly

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Although there is certainly no shortage of nutritional advice today, most consumers remain painfully confused about the quality of their food choices. The reason is not only lack of interest or education but also how relevant information is conveyed.

Food manufacturers tend not to inform their customers very well when marketing their products, a recent survey from the United Kingdom concluded. More than half of the people interviewed for this project said that most nutritional information on food and drink packages was hard to decipher and that they would pay more attention if it were presented in simpler ways.

"The problem is not so much with the labeling itself but the lack of clarity in general," said Thomas Brown, an associate director for research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), the company that carried out the survey. "Consumers are bombarded with conflicting messages from the media on what constitutes a healthy diet, making it difficult for them to make informed choices about how to eat healthily," he said in an interview with Food Navigator.

The survey also included respondents working in the food industry. A vast majority (83 percent) admitted having personally witnessed manipulations in words and imagery to make products appear more nutritionally valuable than they actually were. 37 percent believed that manufacturers and retailers made it deliberately difficult for consumers to understand the information they were given.

This confirms an earlier study, also from the U.K., that found food label descriptions to be rather "economical with the truth," causing widespread misinformation and confusion.

The study, which was conducted by the British Food Advisory Committee, reported that many descriptions were, if not false, outright meaningless. Terms like "pure," "fresh," "natural," "authentic," "original," "homemade," "country style," etc. tell consumers nothing about the nutritional quality of these products, the authors of the report said. Yet they are readily used in unfounded assurances to seduce people into buying them.

Closer to home, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked food manufacturers about a year ago to change nutrition labels, so they display the calorie and nutritional content of the entire food container instead of dividing it up into serving sizes, which oftentimes seems arbitrary and hard to interpret by consumers. In a study, which was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the researchers found that single-serving and dual-column formats of nutrition facts labels were easiest to follow by most participants.

People are willing to learn about the ins and outs of healthy eating if they are explained to them in user-friendly ways. If they feel that the information given to them is unclear, or worse, misleading, they lose interest in making adjustments and go back to ingrained habits.

"I would like to see the total number of calories in a package on a package," said Dr. Marion Nestle, a professor for nutrition at New York University and author of "Food Politics - How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health" (University of California Press 2002) in response to the FDA study. "I don't think people should have to do the math," she added.