Few people at risk for heart disease understand food labels, Irish survey reveals

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30 Aug 2018 --- Many consumers have difficulty understanding food labels, especially men and people at risk for heart disease, according to research presented at ESC Congress 2018. To remedy this, the lead researcher is calling for label improvements to avoid gaps in consumers’ use and interpretation of food labels.

The research is based on an Irish survey which examines awareness, understanding and use of food labels in preventing lifestyle-related disease in a primary care setting. Diet is considered a modifiable risk factor for heart disease prevention. In Ireland, as in many other nations, food labels provide nutritional information to help consumers make informed food choices. 

However, “people find food labels confusing and don’t know what to look for,” says Claire Duffy, a clinical nurse specialist in general practice, MSc preventive cardiology, in Ballina, Ireland, and the study’s lead author. “They still have difficulty understanding and interpreting food labels.”

The study involved 200 men and women, ages 18 to 85, attending a primary care practice. Participants supplied demographic data and answered questions about risk factors for cardiovascular disease as well as use and understanding of food labels.

Seventy-five percent were female; 40 percent self-reported being overweight or obese. Significantly more women than men (65 percent versus 37 percent) always or often read food labels, the study found. Just 5 percent of females said they never look at food labels, compared with more than a third (35 percent) of males.

Having a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD) did not necessarily translate into greater use of food labels. Notably, 40 percent of participants with CVD said they do not read food labels. Among CVD patients that do read labels, two-thirds (67 percent) read about fats, but only a third (33 percent) read about saturated fats, fiber and salt.

Among participants who had a family member with diabetes, 56 percent read the sugar and 60 percent read the salt content of foods.

The study also reveals an important gap in label usage among people with elevated blood cholesterol.

When asked to gauge whether a sample food product had low, medium, or high levels of fat, sugar, fiber and sodium based on its nutrition label, participants had difficulty making sense of the information. Only 20 percent knew the product had a medium level of fat, and just 14 percent correctly identified its low-sugar content.

By contrast, most participants successfully deciphered a “traffic light” food label, where green, amber and red colors are used to signify levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.

According to Duffy, these findings point to the need for improved food labels, especially for illiterate groups and those with color and vision deficiency.

She adds that the study findings highlight the need for enhanced public education. This should begin with efforts across all educational settings to teach children and their parents about food labels, healthy eating and nutrition. This should continue in adulthood with education provided through primary care, community settings and media outlets. 

Perhaps supermarkets and Internet sites could establish dedicated “healthy food” sections with foods where people could easily find items low in sugar, salt, and fat and high in fiber, Duffy suggests.

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