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Many consumers use, trust food date labels but misinterpret information

Researchers say most consumers don't recognize the meanings of USE by and BEST If Used By labels on food -- which can mean the difference between lower quality food and rotten food. Photo by kc0uvb/Pixabay
Researchers say most consumers don't recognize the meanings of "USE by" and "BEST If Used By" labels on food -- which can mean the difference between lower quality food and rotten food. Photo by kc0uvb/Pixabay

May 6 (UPI) -- Lots of consumers refer to and trust food date labels, but fewer understand the information being provided.

New survey data -- published Thursday in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior -- suggests many consumers get mixed up when interpreting "USE By" and "BEST If Used By" labels.

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While one means that food is simply past its prime, the other means it could be unsafe to eat -- which can make a difference when deciding whether to eat it or throw it away.

With hopes of boosting food safety and preventing waste, researchers set out to study how consumers use and interpret food date labels.

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Almost of half of the respondents didn't realize the "BEST If Used By" label refers to the potential for food quality to deteriorate, the researchers found.

Just 24 percent of respondents were aware that food with expired "USE By" labels is unsafe to eat.

"Our study showed that an overwhelming majority of consumers say that they use food date labels to make decisions about food and say they know what the labels mean," study author Catherine Turvey said in a news release.

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"Despite confidently using date labels, many consumers misinterpreted the labels and continued to misunderstand even after reading educational messaging that explained the labels' meaning," said Turvey, a public health specialist at George Washington University.

For the study, scientists surveyed 2,607 adults on how they use and interpret food date labels, finding widespread confusion about the meaning of the labels.

Researchers tried reframing their questions to emphasize different values, such as saving money or reducing waste -- and different messaging strategies had no effect on food date label comprehension.

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However, some consumers provided with brief educational materials were able to accurately identify the meaning of "USE By" and "BEST If Used By" labels.

But despite educational messaging, many consumers still failed to grasp the meanings of the two food date labels.

"Responses to the survey suggest that date labels are so familiar that some consumers believe they are boring, self-explanatory, or common sense despite misunderstanding the labels," said Turvey.

"Unwarranted confidence and the familiarity of date labels may make consumers less attentive to educational messaging that explains the food industry's labeling system," Turvey said.

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