Health Messages Continue to Confuse Americans

July 31, 2012

From the upcoming issue of Food, Nutrition & Science, a new survey suggests Americans want to improve eating habits, but don't know how.

Though nearly all of Americans are trying to improve at least one of their eating habits, many consumers acknowledge that it can be hard to know what to believe about ever-changing nutrition information, according to the recent 2012 Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes Toward Food Safety, Nutrition & Health, commissioned by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.

The study, now in its seventh year, found that most Americans want to improve their health, but that a number of them are still uncertain on the steps they should be taking toward achieving that goal. In fact, Americans are so confused in this arena that over half of them believe it is easier to figure out their income taxes than to figure out what they should and shouldn’t eat to be healthier.

“When nutrition messages are broken down into sound bites, the reality is that the total picture is not portrayed, and people become confused. Nutrition science is evolving, and there are new studies all the time, but sometimes we are quick to report the latest findings without verifying the science behind it. Instead of focusing on just fats or just sugars, consumers need to focus on total diet and foods rather than on one nutrient or technology as the cause of all their health problems,” says Marianne Smith Edge, MS, RD, LD, FADA, Senior Vice President, Nutrition & Food Safety for the International Food Information Council (IFIC).

To get healthy, many Americans are still looking to eliminate dietary fat, with weight and health considerations driving the charge. Even though a large majority understands that different fats can have different effects on health (only 1 in 5 believe all fats have the same impact), 67% are trying to eat as little fat as possible. That means that while 49% are trying to avoid trans fats, 32% are mistakenly also trying to limit the healthier mono- and poly-unsaturated fats.

One possible reason for the disconnect on fats is that fats haven’t been as present in the media as of late. A decade ago, nutrition media attention was more focused on fats, and so consumers therefore focused their attention more on reducing fats in their diets. Today, when consumers are asked about which calories they believe are most likely to cause weight gain, they instead point to carbs and sugars (39% versus 18% for fats). But just four years ago, in 2008, these numbers were reversed – 18% of consumers said carbs contributed to weight gain and 33% said fats. This is an example of how nutrition messaging can impact and change consumer opinion .

“It’s obvious that consumers are not viewing fats as the culprit as much as they did four years ago. However, regardless of the type of fat, we still need to watch the amount. In terms of weight management, we need to stress the importance of moderation and give clear examples to eliminate confusion about what constitutes a healthful diet,” says Smith Edge.

Americans are also trying to reduce or eliminate sodium (78%) and sugar (51%) in their diets. However, most Americans believe that sugars can be included in a healthy diet in moderate amounts (62% – much higher than the 2011 findings at 52%). Low calorie sweeteners are rising in popularity too, with an increasing percentage of Americans (41%, compared to 29% in 2011) agreeing that they can reduce the calorie content of food. Also, one-third (compared to 22% in 2011) agree that low calorie sweeteners can be a part of an overall healthy diet.

While the majority of Americans (71%) estimated their daily calorie needs, 64% of them estimated incorrectly with nearly half (49%) under estimating. Only about one in seven Americans (15%) accurately estimates the number of calories they need to maintain their weight. And when it comes to calories, only three in ten Americans (30%) correctly believe that all sources of calories play an equal role in weight gain.

Disconnects exist in exercise too. Seventy-seven percent of exercising Americans are not meeting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines, but half of those who are “active” are at least engaging in exercises that include strength training (up from 41% in 2011 and 44% on 2010). Two out of three (66%) Americans consider themselves active.

Ultimately, most consumers (76%) feel that changes in nutritional guidance make it hard to know what to believe, and 24% say that their trust of the information provided depends on the source it came from. Twenty-six percent do further research to verify the information provided from different sources. Only 2% mention the FDA as their go to source for trusted information; 11% rely on the internet.

“This was an open ended question and the FDA hadn’t been mentioned earlier in the survey, so it may not have been top of mind. But what we can take from these answers is that consumers are really using their own trust filter when determining what to believe about food and health information. There is so much information out there and that makes it hard for the consumer to decide if the information is coming from a trusted source and is science-based,” says Smith Edge.

Despite all the confusion, Americans report they are trying to improve the healthfulness of their diets, with nearly nine in ten trying to eat more fruits and vegetables. Still, over half (54%) report that they would rather simply enjoy their food than worry about what’s in it. And taste (87%) and price (73%) continue to drive purchases more than more than healthfulness (61%), convenience (53%) or sustainability (35%).

“It is important for us to communicate that healthy food can taste good and also be affordable. We need to dispel the myth that eating healthy food won’t work economically. In fact, there are a lot of options that satisfy both the taste and price factors. We also need to get the message across that choosing to eat healthfully is one of the most cost effective preventative health measures an individual can make. We have a bountiful, healthful, and safe food supply and whether it comes in fresh, frozen or canned form, we should be encouraging people to eat in moderation from a variety of foods and food groups” says Smith Edge.

She adds, “It’s not about one ingredient or food. It’s about creating a culture of healthy eating and physical activity. It’s a lifestyle.”