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Ulster University: Poor food labelling hindering efforts to combat obesity

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Kristina Pentieva. (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)

New research from Ulster University suggests that poor food labelling is causing consumer confusion over added sugar and may be hindering attempts to promote healthy diets and reduce obesity.

Global obesity has more than doubled since 1980. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends adults and children reduce their daily intake of added sugars to less than 10 per cent of their total energy intake to decrease the risk of obesity.

Added sugars are sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates that are added to foods or drinks while they are being processed or prepared.

Over 600 million adults are obese and 41 million children are obese worldwide. In Northern Ireland, obesity figures stand at 26 per cent for adults and 9 per cent for children. Obesity can lead to a number of serious and potential life threatening conditions such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, some types of cancer and also stroke.

Ulster University’s research showed that just four per cent of consumers can correctly classify 10 or more added sugars from a list of 13 items. Almost two thirds (65 per cent) were unaware of WHO guidelines for sugar intake.

After saturated fat (28 per cent), consumers considered sugar (23 per cent) to be the second most important item to be monitored for a healthy diet. Added sugar ingredients were incorrectly classified as natural sugars by 89 per cent of participants, even for frequent food label users.

Consumers believe the best way to manage and reduce added sugar content is to avoid processed foods, sugary foods and drinks and the majority (81 per cent) would rate traffic light, front-of-pack rating systems as most helpful.

Ulster University’s Dr Kristina Pentieva said: “Sugar is increasingly being linked to rising obesity figures and our research results show there is certainly room to improve current labelling and help people to follow healthier diets.

“Consumers can only determine the added sugar content by looking at the ingredients listings, which is challenging as added sugar are disguised under unfamiliar or hidden names which are not popular among the public.

“Our study also highlights for the first time that even relatively well-educated participants struggle to understand nutrition labels and cannot identify added sugars from ingredients listings. Low consumer awareness of WHO guidelines for added sugar consumption is also part of the issue.

“Educating consumers on how to identify added sugars correctly is crucial. Creating uniformed definitions for added, free and natural sugars is hugely important as they don’t exist today. And an effective means of translating and communicating them to the consumer needs to be found to help people follow healthier diets and reduce the degree of obesity in the local and global population.” 

This research was conducted as part of the MSc Food Regulatory Affairs course, a collaborative programme between Ulster University and University College Dublin.

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