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Study Shows Many People Draw Wrong Conclusions From Front-of-Package Labels

Sept. 7, 2010 -- People often misinterpret product claims of low-carbohydrate content on the front of packages, believing the foods are healthy and will help them manage their weight, a study shows.

The result, researchers say, is that many busy people buy products that they think are better for them than they really are.

The researchers used an online questionnaire to gather data from 4,320 people about perceived healthfulness of foods and their ability to manage weight, based only on front-of-package claims.

The investigators found that "low-carbohydrate claims led to more favorable perceptions about products' helpfulness for weight management, healthfulness and caloric content."

But the study also found that the perceptions of people who read labels on the backs of packages, called Nutrition Facts panels, "became more consistent with the nutrition profile" of products, allowing them to make more informed choices.

Front-of-Label Claims vs. Nutrition Facts

"Although exposure to the Nutrition Facts has the potential for mitigating inappropriate benefits attributed to products claiming to be low carbohydrate, previous consumer research suggests that when a food product carries a front-of-package claim, consumers are less likely to turn the package over to look at the Nutrition Facts panel," the researchers say.

They suggest that consumers need to be educated to read all information available for products, and not just front-panel data.

Claims linking low-carb content with healthfulness and weight loss gained popularity earlier this decade as a result of best-selling diet books, such as The South Beach Diet and Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, which stressed the weight loss value of a low-carb diet.

The researchers note that in 2005, some 87% of Americans were aware of low-carb diets, 34% perceived them to have health benefits, and 17% had tried one of the programs in the past year.

Between 2001 and 2005, sales of foods promoted as low-carb increased fivefold, reaching $2.4 billion. But the FDA, which sets rules for nutrition claims, has never defined what constitutes a "low carbohydrate" item.

"The results of this study, coupled with previous food label research, shows that consumers interpret claims on food labels to have meaning beyond the scope of the claim itself," the researchers write.

The researchers conclude that misperceptions about food products carrying claims may lead people to make poorly informed choices that can affect their health, and that the importance of using Nutritional Facts panels should be emphasized.

The study is published in the September/October issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

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