As someone who is constantly looking for ways to eat healthily, I find it frustrating when I go grocery shopping and see a food with a label that says “low fat” or “good source of…”, only to find out that it has a ton of grams of saturated fat or has a high sugar content.
You probably already know that you should read food labels and avoid foods with high levels of sugar and sodium, but what about the other ingredients you find on food labels? There’s one ingredient that may surprise you: A seemingly innocent ingredient called water—that’s right, water. You may be wondering, “If it’s a healthy food, how can it have water?” The answer comes down to how food is manufactured. Food manufacturers don’t have to list water in food labels, but they often add it to their products.
Calorie labels are a great place to start looking for nutritional information, but there are many more places on food packaging that you need to know about.
Part 4 of our food label series examines what customers desire (or think they want) on food labels, as well as how this influences their actual purchasing and eating habits.
What do consumers want to see on food labels?
In general, people look for the following in order of preference:
- content of fat
- content of sugar
- content of cholesterol
- concentration of trans fats
- the amount of protein
- concentration of sodium
- carbohydrate composition
- amount of saturated fat
Calorie content is by far the most popular source of nutritional data. As we saw in Part 3, calorie content can cause a number of issues.
People frequently misread calorie numbers or fail to account for serving size. It’s tempting to get caught up in details like “150 calories per serving” and think “Wow!” That’s a fantastic snack! However, they fail to observe that a serving size is a teeny-tiny handful.
A serving of potato chips, for example, contains roughly 270 calories and 27 chips. That works out to 10 calories per chip. When was the last time you only ate 27 potato chips in one sitting? Go ahead and count them to see what that looks like.
1 pound of potato chips
Most people claim they can’t read or interpret numbers and would rather use a different, faster reference, such as a color-coded traffic light.
Experts can’t agree on what they want to see on food labels, either. Things like: have been suggested and adopted by many countries:
- To avoid malnutrition, international nutrient recommendations have been developed.
- info on food composition
- “expert opinion”
- dietary restrictions
- typical intakes in real life
- existing food safety regulations
- technical and aesthetic considerations
- speculating on whether consumers’ choices will improve as a result of reading the label.
It’s difficult to say what’s best in the end. There is no “gold standard” for validating nutritional profiles, despite the numerous suggestions made by researchers.
We still don’t know what works best, especially when people read labels in different ways (or don’t read them at all).
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What percentage of people read food labels?
Another issue is that not everyone utilizes food labels in the same way. And we don’t have a complete understanding of all the variables at play.
However, we do know that those who read food labels are more likely to be:
- more knowledgeable
- better for you (or more health-conscious).
Female consumers, for example, have been found to read and use labels in roughly 80% of cases.
Other studies, on the other hand, have revealed that only approximately 10-15% of people across all demographics (male, older people, various income groups, etc.) “always” read labels.
Other studies show that while people claim to read labels, they don’t actually do so. (Just as we all claim to “eat healthy” despite cookie crumbs strewn on our shirts.)
This is, in some ways, a positive thing. It means that younger, more educated women are more likely to check food labels while buying groceries for their families or caring for their personal health.
But it also means that many people who need to know more about their food don’t bother to read the labels.
Or maybe there’s a small group of people who are overly concerned about food safety — who analyze labels incessantly yet overlook key fundamentals. Dieters may, for example, focus on total calories rather than food content, deciding that 100 calorie “snack packs” of cookies are “good.”
Our bodies are not bomb calorimeters, as we saw in Part 3. Food quality is important.
Many consumers believe that food labels are unclear and/or that manufacturers do not provide accurate information on packages. These “nutritional skeptics” also don’t read labels.
Food labels: “reading” vs. “understanding”
It’s not the same as reading and comprehending labels. According to one survey, despite the fact that 80% of customers read the labels, only half to two-thirds of them could understand them.
According to research, even though parents are well-intentioned and strive to make wise judgments by reading labels, they are easily overwhelmed. After all, it’s easy to overlook the food label when the kid in your cart is screaming and you’re frantically trying to cram groceries into the cart and get home to make dinner.
Manufacturers realize that appealing to children is a wonderful way to encourage them to disregard any label-based decisions: get the kids excited about a cartoon character or a fun product, and mom and dad are far less likely to pay attention to the details.
Plus, how do you make sense of all that information on the label in the first place?
Do you worry about the fat-to-calorie ratio, the carbohydrate grams, the calcium-to-RDA ratio, or…? Which of the 50 breakfast cereal or granola bar brands is the best? On the label, they all claim “healthy” and “whole grain”! Gah!
Many customers complain that there is simply too much choice, too much confusing information, and too little time to make an informed selection.
Is food labeling truly beneficial?
Okay, a lot of people want improved food labels. Many people read them, even if they don’t always comprehend them.
Do food labels, on the other hand, influence what consumers buy and eat? Is it really necessary to label foods?
On this one, the jury is still out.
Another issue is that food labels aren’t always very clear or easy to understand. People find it difficult to read and use labels, even if they truly want to.
Many regions are experimenting with different food label types, such as more graphic labeling. (An example is given below.)
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So, the food label appears to be easier to comprehend. However, studies of consumer behavior in a variety of industries have shown that what individuals say they want and do isn’t usually what they want and do.
So, a study with a simpler “traffic light” label (the kind that customers say they like) discovered that, indeed, consumers recognized the traffic light label… It didn’t matter, though.
People didn’t care about labels if they were looking for excellent, satisfying items. In general, people only looked at the packaging if they were concerned about their health or weight control.
People would consciously avoid any products that appeared to be “healthy” if they were searching for a taste fiesta or a good ol’ snackytime pleasure. (The erroneous assumption: If it’s good for me, it must be bad for me.)
People’s purchasing decisions are greatly influenced by a “healthiness” label, as we saw in Part 3 – and not always for the better.
What exactly does it all imply?
We’ll tie everything together in Part 5 of this article. Keep an eye out for updates.
Summary and suggestions for action
- People look for specific information on food labels, such as calories or fat content, but they don’t necessarily perceive it accurately. Alternatively, they may be unsure about how to apply this knowledge to themselves.
- People may read but not understand food labels.
- People may read food labels, but they are unconcerned.
- People may study food labels and then make less healthful decisions based on that knowledge.
- As a result, more information isn’t necessarily better. Consider what you want from your food and why.
- Consider: How and why am I selecting this food? Is it because it’s more convenient? Because I’m interested in the package? Because it’s labeled as “healthy” (or “unhealthy”)?
- Increase your intake of whole, unprocessed foods. You save time and effort by not having to read labels, and you won’t be surprised. An apple is an apple is an apple is an apple is an apple is an apple is an
Check out part 5 of this article series for more information about food labels, including some crucial take-home messages.
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I had been going back and forth for a long time with whether or not I should start writing on this topic again. I have never been a huge fan of labels on food, but I am a big consumer of pre-packaged food products and have been for a long time. When I was first introduced to the concept of labels, I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I ate food that was labeled low fat and thought to myself, “Finally I can eat the things I want, and I can be healthy at the same time!” Then I was diagnosed with a serious illness when I was in my early twenties, and was told I had to change my diet radically to treat my condition. I believe that labels are an easy. Read more about why do i eat more than others and let us know what you think.
This article broadly covered the following related topics:
- precision nutrition reading labels
- i like food too much
- how to stop hedonic eating
- eating too much healthy food
- psychology behind eating too much