Sugar Content is the Most Important Factor for Consumers When Making Healthy Food Choices, Study Finds

Sugar content is the most important factor for consumers when making healthy food choices using traffic light labeling (TLL), according to the findings of a study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.

“When using the TLL consumers often have to make trade-offs between undesirable attributes and decide which to use to guide them in making a choice. We wanted to find out whether it was fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt they most wanted to avoid and see whether the traffic light labelling was influencing this decision,” said Dietician and PhD researcher Ola Anabtawi, the study’s lead the researcher in a press release.

To assess the importance of macronutrients commonly used in TLL, researchers conducted a choice based conjoint analysis (CBC) study of 858 participants aged 18 years and older recruited from the general population of Nottingham, UK. They also completed an additional cross-sectional online survey of 901 more participants to evaluate the public’s knowledge of TLL intake recommendations.

Sugar Content a Deciding Factor

The researchers observed that among 641 participants, when deciding upon the healthiness of items, sugar content was significantly the most important macronutrient (0.34; 95% CI, 0.32 to 0.35). The results showed that red labeling was significantly more influential than green labeling across macronutrients. Moreover, in the substudy, the results showed that 13.3% of participants correctly identify the maximum recommended intake of free sugars. Furthermore, 42.8% of the total sample could not identify whether the sugar content information on TLL refers to the total or free sugar content.

Ola continues: “Despite the lack of knowledge about the recommendations underpinning the TLL criteria participants’ decisions about the healthiness of food products were significantly influenced by TLL information on the items’ sugar content. TLL do, therefore, appear to be guide consumers beliefs in the absence of deep knowledge,” Dr. Anabtawi continued.

“The dominance of sugar in decision-making shows the labelling system is having an impact in the current public health climate. However, it is important to consider the effect of disregarding other nutrients (i.e. fat and salt) for people with different nutritional needs. We suggest raising awareness of all nutrients to help the public achieve the well- balanced diet.”