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25/07/2016

Study: Consumers duped by recommended serving sizes

Agriculture & Food

Study: Consumers duped by recommended serving sizes

Nutritional information is making a bigger impact on people's eating habits, but it is being undermined by misleading supplementary information.

[Health Gauge/Flickr]

Trends show that consumers are relying more and more on nutritional information to inform their purchases. However, recommended serving sizes are misleading shoppers, says a new study. EurActiv Germany reports.

Whether it is a question of high blood pressure, cholesterol levels or obesity, Europeans’ health depends more and more on diet. Six of the seven major causes of premature death, such as blood pressure, BMI or sedentary lifestyle, are influenced by what we eat and drink or by how active we are, according to the European Commission. Obesity is a particularly prevalent problem, especially among children, and it is on the rise in the EU, with experts warning that the trend is a ticking time-bomb.

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In order to address the problem, the Commission’s Directorate-General for Health (DG SANCO) launched its Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health in March 2005. Furthermore, EU-wide uniform food labelling was agreed upon and will come into force in December 2016. However, a new study published by researchers at the University of Göttingen has found that food labelling does not always have a positive effect on consumer habits.

Shoppers pay an increasing amount of attention to the information provided on food labelling, such as calorific content, serving size and protein count, so it stands to reason that they are susceptible to being misled by it if it is not accurate. As the recommended serving size is used as a basis for nutritional values, the producer is able to display it on the front of the product packaging voluntarily, as opposed to the mandatory nutritional information, which goes on the back. 

Duped consumers

The study was able to conclude that products that display smaller portion sizes were bought more frequently.

“Our results suggest that smaller recommended portion sizes can be misleading and have a hazardous effect on the eating habits of people who use nutritional information as a guide when buying their food,” warned the leader of the study, Ossama Elshiewy. The team also noticed that products that use smaller recommended servings tend to be unhealthier.

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The study collected its data from more than 1,500 UK supermarkets of the course of a two year period.  The results highlight how easily people can be manipulated, in good faith, when it comes to eating healthily.

“It seems that many consumers who evaluate a product based on its calorific content or other nutritional values ignore the information that compares it per serving,” said Elshiewy. The researchers also warned that this is down to marketing, with little thought of providing the consumer with valuable information.

Elshiewy’s team, therefore, called for an urgent standardisation of recommended serving criteria.