Capetonians not interested in reading nutritional information on food labels

Capetonians don’t seem to be very clued up about nutritional information on food labels, a new study at Stellenbosch University (SU) found.

“Consumers in Cape Town have poor knowledge about food and nutrition labels and nutrition information on food labels does not have a major influence on what they buy,” says Dr Nelene Koen a lecturer in the Division of Human Nutrition in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at SU. DR Koen recently obtained her doctorate in Nutritional Sciences at SU.

She analysed consumers’ knowledge and reading of nutritional information on food labels and explored the factors influencing their food-purchasing behaviour and why they ignore or read the nutrition information. Koen also determined their expectations and perceived barriers regarding the nutrition information on food labels as well as the acceptability and appropriate design of a single health endorsement logo (HEL) for products that are healthier choices based on the South African (SA) nutrient profile model.

This was the first study on Cape Town consumers’ knowledge about nutritional information on food labels.  Most research in SA on food and nutrition labelling has been done in Gauteng and the North West with the exception of one national study.

The label of a well-known South African breakfast cereal was used to determine 960 literate adult consumers’ knowledge of food labels. As their households’ primary buyers of food, these consumers were interviewed as they entered and left 16 selected grocery stores across the City. They were requested to locate information on the label, identify claims and symbols, and interpret and calculate nutritional information on the label.

Also, nine focus group discussions were held with some participants from this group of consumers on the factors influencing their purchasing behaviour and reasons for ignoring or reading the nutritional information on food labels. During the discussions, consumers could indicate the types of HELs they prefer and comment on the overall design of new HELs, use of colours, symbols, wording, and their understanding of existing international and South African HELs (e.g. Swedish green keyhole, South African Heart and Stroke Foundation Heart Mark etc.)

This information was then used to design and evaluate ten HELs of which the three best-ranked logos were identified and recommended to the Directorate Food Control at the Department of Health to consider for implementation after further testing, with the aim of one logo ultimately being selected for use on food products. The Directorate holds overall responsibility for the publication and amendment of SA’s labelling legislation.

Dr Koen says the study found that just over one-third (36.0%) of the 960 consumers indicated that they frequently/always read nutrition information on food labels.

“The main reasons many consumers don’t read nutrition information on food labels included always buying the same type of product, a lack of interest and time to study the information, price concerns and lack of trust in food labelling information.”

Dr Koen mentions that some consumers felt that the nutrition information on food labels was misleading and that manufacturers were trying to deceive them.

“Consumers also struggled to understand the complex nutrition information on food labels, specifically the nutrition information table. 

“Many couldn’t locate information on the label, stating it’s too busy, the information sometimes difficult to find, and the font-size too small. Consumers also struggled to do calculations using the nutrition information table, rather preferring nutrition and health claims made on the front-of-pack e.g. Low in fat; Low in sodium etc. They found the list of ingredients to be complex and very technical.

Dr Koen says that when buying a product, consumers would consider its price, sell-by date and whether it’s on promotion.

“Food price was sometimes the only consideration when buying products, irrespective of their quality and nutritional value. For some taste, brand loyalty, marketing, and convenience were key, while others were influenced by family, culture and religion.”

Regarding a single HEL, she points out that consumers preferred simple, clear HELs with a direct link to health and/or nutrition.

“Bright, bold colours, a clear and easy to read message (containing the words ‘healthy choice’) and a logo that would attract attention on a ‘busy’ food label were all mentioned as important characteristics of the design of an HEL.

“Many consumers said the use of a single HEL that would indicate a product is a ‘healthy choice’ would make assessing the ‘healthiness’ of a product much easier.”

Dr Koen says education campaigns to educate consumers about how to make healthy food choices by using nutrition information on food labels, should be tailored to the needs of diverse consumers.

“A better understanding of how consumers engage with nutrition information on food labels is required to make recommendations to improve education campaigns to assist consumers in making healthier food choices.”

Dr Koen says the food industry should place a renewed focus on the design and layout of food labels and work with the Department of Health to apply the food regulations correctly and to provide nutrition information on food labels based on consumers’ preferences and expectations. 

“This could help improve and simplify current labelling legislation aimed at protecting the consumer from misleading information.”

Highlighting the importance of this research, Koen says nutrition labelling is considered a key component of comprehensive strategies to tackle unhealthy diets and associated non-communicable diseases which could lead to more deaths among adult South Africans between 30 and 70 years.

She calls for similar studies in the other provinces or on a national scale, and specifically in rural areas.