Nutrition label confusion reaches far and wide

Nielsen's global study unveils more than half of consumers don't understand them

NEW YORK — Food manufacturers, take note: Consumers worldwide don't necessarily understand nutritional labels on packaging, according to a new Nielsen survey.

The global survey, which pooled responses from more than 25,000 Internet consumers in 56 countries, found that about 6-out-of-10 consumers (59%) have difficulty comprehending nutritional labels and just 52% understood them "in part." Looking across demographics, consumers in North America showed the most confidence in understanding nutritional labels, with more than half (57%) indicating they mostly understood the information — including 58% of Americans and 49% of Canadians — followed by Europeans (45%). Consumers in Asia Pacific showed the lowest level of nutritional label understanding, with less than one-third (31%) mostly understanding nutritional information.

“Consumers around the world have healthy eating on their minds and consumer packaged goods marketers have an opportunity to help,” Nielsen VP global consumer insights James Russo said. “Consumer-friendly nutritional labeling can be a powerful marketing tool as consumers are hungry for easy-to-understand information.”

Among nutritional labels that are trusted by consumers, calorie count claims rank supreme, with one-third of consumers claiming they always are accurate, followed by vitamin and fat content claims are the second- and third-most trusted claims, respectively. On the other hand, packaging that touts such claims as "freshness" and "heart healthy" are sometimes or never considered believable, the survey found.

“Consumers have difficulty trusting more ambiguous attributes compared to the concrete ingredient-based information,” Russo said. “Clearly there is a need and an opportunity for more education to help reduce the skepticism that is apparent around all parts of the globe.”

Among those surveyed, more than half (53%) considered themselves overweight and 48% said they were trying to lose weight. Among them nearly 80% are trying to lose weight through dieting.

Nielsen's survey was conducted in March/April 2011 and in August/September 2011.

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