Researchers showed people photos of real and fake food products in a study designed to assess consumer understanding of food labeling. Photo by Sarah Cronin/Tufts University
Aug. 10 (UPI) -- Up to half of all U.S. consumers are confused by the labeling on food products such as cereal, bread and crackers, causing them to make fewer healthy choices when shopping, according to a study published Monday by the journal Public Health Nutrition.
Consumers asked to identify the healthier options based on whole grain content made the wrong choice 47% of the time for bread, up to 37% for crackers and 31% for cereal, the researchers said.
The findings suggest that product labels, particularly as they relate to grain content, are confusing to consumers, researchers said.
"The general public has heard [that we should] eat more whole grains and, knowing this, food manufacturers sometimes design their packages to make consumers think [their products] have more whole grains than they do," study co-author Parke Wilde told UPI.
"For example, manufacturers may use labels such as 'multigrain,' '12-grain' or 'contains whole grain,' which are permitted [by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration] even if the products contain mostly refined grains," said Wilde, a food economist and professor at Tuft University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that half of all grains consumed should be whole grains. Adequate intake of whole grains has been linked with reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, Worsham and his colleagues said.
Earlier studies have identified disparities in whole grain intake in the United States, including, for example, lower intake for adolescents than for adults and lower intake for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
For their research, Wilde and his colleagues surveyed 1,030 U.S. adults, who were shown images of real and hypothetical products created specifically for the study.
The goal of the study was to find whether consumer understanding of product labels meets a legal standard for enhanced U.S. label requirements for whole grain products, the researchers said.
The legal standard relates to deceptive advertising, and evidence that the labels are actually misleading -- or likely to mislead -- consumers can bolster support for changes to existing regulations, they said.
"It is difficult for consumers to assess products correctly under current labeling rules, but it is possible by reading closely," Wilde said.
"For example, the ingredient list is required to present the ingredients in order from highest to lowest weight, and by reading closely you can determine how high up the list the whole grain ingredients appear -- but beware, the term 'enriched' or 'wheat' does not mean the ingredient has whole grains," he said.
Study participants were shown product photos with various whole grain labels on the front of the package, along with the nutrition facts label and ingredients list for each product. The packages on the hypothetical products either had no front-of-package whole grain label or were marked with "multigrain," "made with whole grains" or a whole grain stamp, the researchers said.
The packages on the real products displayed the actual product markings, including "multigrain," "honey wheat," and "12 grain," they said.
Participants were asked to identify the healthier option for the hypothetical products or assess the whole grain content for the real products, the researchers said.
For the hypothetical products, 53% of the participants selected the healthier bread option, while between 63% and 71% selected the healthier choice for crackers. Just under 70% chose the healthier cereal, the researchers said.
For real products that were not mostly composed of whole grains, up to 51% of respondents overstated the products' whole grain content, according to the researchers.
"With the results of this study, we have a strong legal argument that whole grain labels are misleading," study co-author Jennifer L. Pomeranz said in a statement.
"Even people with advanced degrees cannot figure out how much whole grain is in these products," said Pomeranz, an assistant professor of public health policy and management at New York University.