Why Do People Think Food Labels Are Misleading?

Many Americans Consider Labels Vague and Misleading

A consumer survey across the pond has found that Americans are increasingly mistrustful of food labels.

US survey site OnePoll has teamed up with freeze-dried fruit company Crispy Green to carry out one of the largest ever polls related specifically to food labelling, and the results have given everyone in the industry, from manufacturers to packagers to designers, plenty to think about.

The survey found that there was widespread mistrust of the information contained of food packaging and promotional labels, with more than half saying that the labels are “sometimes misleading.” This is an age in which there are tighter requirements than ever on what information needs to be provided and how. There are also serious consequences if food companies get it wrong, in terms of recall costs and adverse publicity.

With all that in mind, you would expect confidence in food labelling to be at an all time high, yet 43 percent of those surveyed believe that food companies are deliberately misleading their customers in a cynical bid to increase sales. Just how has this disconnect come about?

Always read the label

It’s a phrase we’ve all heard time and again since we were children. But how many of us actually do it? The answer, in America, at least, is more than you might think. 77 percent of those surveyed said they always read the label when buying food, and more than 70 percent are zeroing in on the sugar content. This in turn leads us to the first clue in where the mistrust comes from.

Who’s hidden the sugar?

An astonishing 93 percent feel that companies hide sugar in their products. At first glance that sounds outrageous, but further analysis found that it came down to companies using other words, such as sucrose, or to there being other ingredients in a product, such as fruits, which are themselves high in sugar. More than half of those surveyed said that had eaten something they thought was sugar free, only to find later that it contained sugar.

Simplicity is key

You might assume from the above that Americans want more detailed information on their labels, but that is not the case. 83 percent said they are in favour of “simple” packaging that is easy to read and only contains the essential information that they are looking for. Clearly, this creates something of a challenge for everyone involved in the food labelling industry.

What are the options?

Consumers who follow a certain lifestyle are looking for certain things, and that might be the first clue to a way out of the mess that the US labelling industry has got itself into. 97 percent of those who are on a specific diet or follow a given food-related lifestyle choice want to be able to instantly recognise food that is aimed at them.

Colour coding is a perfect first step in separating out these different groups, and identifying the “simple” things that they so want to see on their food labels. Getting there, however, will demand a concerted and united effort by all the major players and regulatory bodies in the US food industry. There will be interesting months ahead.