The Salt
5:25 pm
Tue January 24, 2012

Eaters Worldwide Are Skeptical of Manufacturers' Health Claims

We members of the global food village seem to have something in common: We're pretty darned skeptical food manufacturers' health claims.

More than three-quarters of people in 56 countries say they almost never believe the health claims on food labels, according to an Internet survey of more than 25,000 people by the Nielsen polling firm. Just 12 percent believed labels shouting "non-artificial" were legit, while only 13 percent went for "heart healthy," and just 14 percent believed "all natural."

These shrewd label-readers were more likely to believe claims backed by numbers, like calorie or vitamin content. They look for nutritional information on labels, despite the fact that labeling standards and requirements vary wildly around the world. But almost 60 percent of people said they had trouble grasping those label facts.

That doesn't come as a huge surprise. Last fall the independent Institute of Medicine said U.S. labels were so confusing that we should scrap the whole system. Instead, the IOM called for package fronts that sport a nutrition label with three key facts: saturated and trans fats; sodium; and added sugars. Those would be compared on a three-point scale, with three being good. Simple, yes?

Instead, manufacturers in the United States have gone with a new voluntary system of package front labels, showing calories, saturated fat, salt, and sugar, as well as beneficial ingredients like fiber and potassium. They should start appearing on foods this year.

Good luck with that. Research has shown that people read a food label for only about three seconds on average. But with labeling standards and requirements varying wildly around the world, don't expect that simplicity to take hold any time soon.

Perhaps the most charming newslet in the survey is what packaged foods people consider healthy. Whole grain products topped the list in Europe and the Americas, followed by cholesterol-reducing oil and margarine. People in Asia went for yogurt with acidophilus and fermented drinks. And in the Middle East, people grab fruit juice with vitamin and mineral supplements.

Maybe these numbers reflect deep cultural preferences. Or maybe they just reflect the whims of food marketing. But there's no question that people around the world know that when it comes to healthier eating, there's no such thing as a magical food.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.