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Nutritional literacy sorely lacking despite abundant info

Americans overwhelmed by conflicting food and nutrition information.

Americans are consuming food information from more sources than ever before, yet nutritional literacy is sorely lacking — and health may be suffering as a result. This was among the findings of the International Food Information Council Foundation’s (IFIC) 12th annual "Food & Health Survey."

“As in previous years, the 'Food & Health Survey' has shown that Americans feel overwhelmed by conflicting food and nutrition information, but this year, we’re finding troubling signs that the information glut is translating into faulty decisions about our diets and health,” IFIC Foundation chief executive officer Joseph Clayton said.

As policy-makers work to revise the Nutrition Facts panel and define the term "healthy" on food labels, Clayton said it’s more crucial than ever before to empower consumers by presenting them with accurate information based on the best available science in terms they can easily understand and put into action.

Food confusion

The survey showed that the vast majority of consumers — eight in 10 (78%) — say they encounter a lot of conflicting information about what to eat or avoid. More than half of them (56%) said the conflicting information makes them doubt the choices they make.

According to the results, almost all consumers (96%) seek out health benefits in what they eat and drink, with the top benefits being weight loss, cardiovascular health, energy and digestive health; however, only 45% could identify a single food or nutrient associated with those benefits.

For example, while sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as fish oil are said to contribute to heart health, just 12% of respondents made an association between them. In addition, while people were interested in getting energy benefits, less than 5% could name caffeine as providing those benefits.

About one in five (19%) Americans said they occasionally read scientific studies for information about what to eat and what to avoid. That was slightly more than those who read news articles or headlines (17%) and also ahead of sources such as health or fitness professionals on TV or social media, bloggers, food companies and government agencies.

So, why are consumers confused? For one, IFIC said, despite our best intentions, the people we’re closest to might actually be leading us astray.

About three-quarters of consumers (77%) surveyed said they rely on friends and family at least a little for both nutrition and food safety information -- which tops other sources, including health professionals, news and the internet -- but only 29% actually have high trust in family or friends as information sources, which ranks far behind sources such as registered dietitian nutritionists, other health or fitness professionals and health-related websites.

Meanwhile, six in 10 consumers (59%) rated family and friends as the top influencers on decisions about their eating patterns or diets. Personal health care professionals were cited by 55% of consumers, while all other sources rated only in the single digits.

The health 'halo' effect

The "Food & Health Survey" also suggested that consumers might be paying too much or making flawed decisions about nutrition because of non-health factors—or mental shortcuts — that drastically alter the perception of what is healthful.

These factors include the form of the food (fresh, frozen or canned), the place of purchase (e.g., convenience store versus natural food store), the length of the ingredient list and price, among others — and these factors are driving perceptions of healthfulness even between two foods with identical nutrition information.

For example, between nutritionally identical products, consumers are almost five times as likely to believe that a fresh product is healthier than canned and four times as likely to believe that a fresh product is healthier than frozen. Consumers also are more likely to believe that a product costing $2 is healthier than an otherwise identical product costing 99 cents.

For years, some influencers have driven home messages relating nutrition to non-health values, and now consumers are paying the price — literally, or at the expense of other desired factors such as convenience or shelf life.

Results were derived from an online survey of 1,002 Americans ages 18-80 that was conducted March 10-29, 2017. Results were weighted to ensure that they were reflective of the American population, as seen in the 2016 "Current Population Survey." The survey was conducted by Greenwald & Associates, using ResearchNow’s consumer panel.

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