Guilt Free? Lite? Healthy? The Harris Poll Examines Consumer Confusion Over Grocery Labels

New York , N.Y. – March 6, 2014 – Ever stood in the aisle of a grocery store completely overwhelmed by the claims jumping out from the labels? You may not be alone. Health advocacy groups have long decried America’s nutrition labeling system as misleading, confusing and, ultimately, inaccurate, and the FDA recently announced plans to overhaul it for the first time in two decades. But just how much do Americans value nutrition against other factors, such as cost and convenience, when making decisions on their grocery runs? And how much faith are they placing in those more general claims, such as Healthy, Guilt Free or Reduced… well… anything? Our findings indicate that while Americans are straight on some of the claims, they’re still in need of the skinny on others.

When asked how helpful they believe each of a series of common food packaging statements are in guiding them toward nutritious choices in the grocery store, results were mixed. Many of the more carefully regulated claims are held in high esteem, though at least one appears to be experiencing some consumer confusion. Conversely, some of the less meaningful claims are seen as helpful by majorities of consumers in their quest for nutritious choices.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,266 adults surveyed online between February 12 and 17, 2014.

“The Good”

Nearly three-fourths of Americans (73%) feel packages proclaiming their contents to be fresh are helpful in guiding them towards healthy choices – and well they should. Fact: Only products which have never been frozen or warmed and which contain no preservatives can qualify for such a claim.

Strong majorities also see the following claims as helpful which makes sense as each has strict criteria the products need to meet in order to qualify for such claims:

  • High in/Good Source of (e.g., High in Fiber, Good Source of Calcium) – 73%
  • Low (e.g., Low Sodium, Low Cholesterol) – 71%
  • Free (e.g., Fat Free, Cholesterol Free) – 68%
  • Lean – 65%

Americans are more divided on whether seeing healthy on a food package is a helpful indicator that nutrition lies within, with 53% feeling it’s helpful and 47% indicating it’s not. In fact, this claim is strictly regulated across a broad nutritional spectrum, with specific limits on its fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium content; products displaying this claim also need to have at least 10% of the recommended daily value for a range of nutrients.

“The bad”

Roughly three-fourths of U.S. adults (76%) feel that the statement “Made with…” – as in, Made with Whole Grains or Made with Real Fruit – is a helpful signpost in navigating their way to a healthy meal. Unfortunately, they’re mistaken; the fact is, these labels can be applied to anything that contains even very small amounts of the boasted content.

Majorities also find packages advertising their wares as natural, all natural or 100% natural (62%) and lightly sweetened or low sugar (60%) to be helpful in directing them toward nutritious choices. However, the FDA has never established an official definition for natural claims. Lightly sweetened and low sugar are similarly undefined, with the low sugar claim in particular sometimes drawing attention away from sweetening accomplished through other products.

Americans seem fairly clear, however, on Guilt Free, with just over three-fourths (76%) saying it’s not helpful in guiding them toward nutritious choices in the grocery store; they’re right, incidentally. The claim has no legal meaning.

“And the ones in the middle”

Americans show mixed attitudes toward two labels which are helpful – to a point: a majority (57%) feel a Reduced claim – ˆ la Reduced Calories or Reduced Fat – is an indicator of nutritious wares, while fewer than half (45%) put the same stock in claims of Light or Lite. These claims are in fact both strictly regulated by the FDA, with guidelines requiring they be specific percentages lower than comparable regular products in fat, calories or other criteria. This does not necessarily mean the products are low in these factors though, so it’s important in such cases to turn that package around and read the nutritional facts in full.

The Price of Nutrition

When asked which factors play roles when deciding between food products at the grocery store, cost is the top consideration no matter how you cut it:

  • 52% of Americans rate it very important – at least twice as many as say the same for any other factor.
    • Cost is followed distantly on this measure by fat (26%), sugar (24%), sodium (also 24%) and caloric (21%) content, while fewer than two in ten find the remaining factors very important.
  • When asked to select the most important consideration when deciding between food products at the grocery store, roughly half of Americans (49%) point to cost.
    • Cost is in this case followed distantly by combined (29%) mentions of fat (8%), caloric (8%), sodium (8%) and sugar (5%) content.

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TABLE 1a

IMPORTANCE OF FACTORS IN MAKING DECISIONS BETWEEN FOOD PRODUCTS (SUMMARY GRID)

When shopping for food at the grocery store, how important is each of the following to you when making decisions between food products?

Base: U.S. adults

VERY IMPORTANT/ IMPORTANT (NET)

Very important

Important

NOT THAT IMPORTANT/ NOT AT ALL IMPORTANT (NET)

Not that important

Not at all important

Cost

%

90

52

38

10

8

2

Fat content

%

69

26

43

31

23

8

Sugar content

%

68

24

45

32

23

9

Total calories/Calories per serving

%

66

21

44

34

24

11

Sodium content

%

65

24

41

35

25

10

Ease of preparation

%

62

17

45

38

30

8

Speed of preparation

%

52

11

40

48

36

12

Whether it is organic

%

29

9

20

71

34

37

Allergen content (e.g., peanuts, gluten)

%

25

10

15

75

26

49

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100 percent due to rounding

 

TABLE 1b

IMPORTANCE OF FACTORS IN MAKING DECISIONS BETWEEN FOOD PRODUCTS

Summary of Very important + Important [NET] By Generation & Gender

When it comes to shopping for your household groceries, which of the following best describes your level of responsibility?

Base: U.S. Adults

Total

Generation

Gender

Parent w/ 1+ Child <18

Echo Boomers (18-36)

Gen Xers (37-48)

Baby Boomers (49-67)

Matures (68+)

Male

Female

Yes

No

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Cost

90

89

92

90

90

88

92

90

91

Fat content

69

63

70

72

75

64

74

69

69

Sugar content

68

63

66

72

76

64

72

67

69

Total calories/Calories per serving

66

64

63

67

72

58

72

64

66

Sodium content

65

58

60

69

79

61

69

63

66

Ease of preparation

62

65

62

61

60

63

61

60

63

Speed of preparation

52

56

55

48

46

50

53

58

50

Whether it is organic

29

38

33

25

15

27

31

37

27

Allergen content (e.g., peanuts, gluten)

25

27

25

24

22

26

24

30

23


TABLE 2

MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR IN MAKING DECISIONS BETWEEN FOOD PRODUCTS

By Generation & Gender

And of these considerations, which is most important to you when making decisions between food products at the grocery store?

Base: U.S. Adults

Total

Generation

Gender

Parent w/ 1+ Child <18

Echo Boomers (18-36)

Gen Xers (37-48)

Baby Boomers (49-67)

Matures (68+)

Male

Female

Yes

No

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Cost

49

47

53

48

49

46

52

53

48

Nutritional considerations (NET)

29

25

22

32

40

31

27

21

31

Fat content

8

6

7

9

12

9

8

8

8

Total calories/Calories per serving

8

11

5

7

7

7

9

4

9

Sodium content

8

6

5

10

10

9

6

4

8

Sugar content

5

3

5

6

11

6

5

4

6

Convenience considerations (NET)

7

7

8

7

5

8

6

9

6

Ease of preparation

5

5

6

6

4

6

4

5

5

Speed of preparation

2

2

2

1

 

2

2

3

1

Whether it is organic

5

7

5

4

 

4

5

8

4

Allergen content (e.g., peanuts, gluten)

3

4

3

2

1

2

3

3

2

Other

3

4

3

3

1

4

3

2

3

None of these

5

5

5

4

5

6

4

5

4

Percentages may not add up exactly to 100 percent due to rounding; denotes a response rate of <0.5%


TABLE 3a

HOW HELPFUL IS EACH STATEMENT IN DIRECTING YOU TOWARD NUTRITIOUS CHOICES (SUMMARY GRID)

You may have seen some or all of the following statements on food packaging at the grocery store. How helpful do you believe each statement is in directing you toward nutritious choices in the grocery store?

Base: U.S. adults

HELPFUL (NET)

Very helpful

Somewhat helpful

NOT VERY/NOT AT ALL HELPFUL (NET)

Not very helpful

Not at all helpful

Made with (e.g., Made with Whole Grains, Made with Real Fruit)

%

76

25

51

24

17

6

Fresh

%

73

34

39

27

17

9

High in/Good Source of (e.g., High in Fiber, Good Source of Calcium)

%

73

23

50

27

20

7

Low (e.g., Low Sodium, Low Cholesterol)

%

71

21

49

29

21

9

Free (e.g., Fat Free, Cholesterol Free)

%

68

20

48

32

21

11

Lean

%

65

18

47

35

23

12

Natural/All Natural/100% Natural

%

62

22

40

38

25

14

Lightly Sweetened/Low Sugar

%

60

13

46

40

27

14

Reduced (e.g., Reduced Calories, Reduced Fat)

%

57

14

43

43

30

13

Healthy

%

53

19

34

47

29

18

Light/Lite

%

45

11

34

55

34

20

Guilt Free

%

24

7

17

76

29

47

Note: Percentages may not add up exactly to 100 percent due to rounding


TABLE 3b

HOW HELPFUL IS EACH STATEMENT IN DIRECTING YOU TOWARD NUTRITIOUS CHOICES

Summary of Very helpful + Helpful [NET] By Generation, Gender & HH Shopping Responsibility

You may have seen some or all of the following statements on food packaging at the grocery store. How helpful do you believe each statement is in directing you toward nutritious choices in the grocery store?

Base: U.S. Adults

Total

Generation

Gender

HH Shopping Responsibility

Echo Boomers (18-36)

Gen Xers (37-48)

Baby Boomers (49-67)

Matures (68+)

Male

Female

Most/All or Share

Someone else does most/all

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Made with (e.g., Made with Whole Grains, Made with Real Fruit)

76

70

79

78

82

73

78

77

67

Fresh

73

67

71

77

84

71

76

74

71

High in/Good Source of (e.g., High in Fiber, Good Source of Calcium)

73

68

73

76

76

69

77

74

63

Low (e.g., Low Sodium, Low Cholesterol)

71

61

73

73

81

65

76

72

63

Free (e.g., Fat Free, Cholesterol Free)

68

62

63

71

80

67

68

68

64

Lean

65

60

61

69

74

61

69

65

64

Natural/All Natural/100% Natural

62

65

65

60

51

58

65

62

60

Lightly Sweetened/Low Sugar

60

49

60

65

71

55

64

62

45

Reduced (e.g., Reduced Calories, Reduced Fat)

57

53

55

59

64

53

61

58

51

Healthy

53

52

55

53

53

51

55

53

50

Light/Lite

45

44

46

45

46

41

49

45

44

Guilt Free

24

26

26

23

19

24

25

25

21


TABLE 4

LEVEL OF RESPONSIBILITY FOR HOUSEHOLD GROCERY SHOPPING

By Generation & Gender

When it comes to shopping for your household groceries, which of the following best describes your level of responsibility?

Base: U.S. Adults

2014 Total

Generation

Gender

Echo Boomers (18-36)

Gen Xers (37-48)

Baby Boomers (49-67)

Matures (68+)

Male

Female

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

I do all or most of the grocery shopping for my household.

62

53

66

66

64

50

73

I share the responsibility of grocery shopping equally with someone else.

26

29

25

25

22

33

20

Someone else in my household does most of the grocery shopping.

8

11

6

5

11

12

4

Someone else in my household does all of the grocery shopping.

4

7

3

3

3

6

3

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding

 

Methodology

This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between February 12 and 17, 2014 among 2,266 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words margin of error as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

The Harris Poll #23, March 6, 2014

By Larry Shannon-Missal, Harris Poll Research Manager