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A recent survey commissioned by the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre shows a fair level of public awareness and positive attitude towards the Nutrition Labelling Scheme (“the Scheme”), which has come into effect since 1 July 2010.
The Scheme aims to enable consumers to make healthier food choices, with the nutrition labels on pre-packaged food items carrying “1+7” nutrition information, which covers the value of energy plus seven specified nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates, sugars, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium. The Scheme also regulates nutrition claims such as sugar and low fat.
As part of the Centre’s ongoing effort to promote preventive healthcare and healthy lifestyles, the telephone survey was conducted between 1 June and 9 June 2011 by the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong to understand the level of public awareness and attitudes towards the Scheme. A total of 1,005 Hong Kong residents, aged 18 and above, were successfully interviewed, with a response rate of 44.1%. This is a follow-up study on the Centre’s policy submission paper on primary care and healthy lifestyles released in September last year.
The survey shows that 79.2% of the respondents were aware of the implementation of the Scheme, mainly through the mass media. Over 60% of the respondents indicated that they would ‘frequently’ or ‘sometimes’ consult the nutrition labels or nutrition claims on food packaging at varying levels when purchasing pre-packaged food items. Of them, most answered that they did so ‘to choose healthier food items’.
About 78% of the respondents found the Scheme ‘very helpful or quite helpful’ when choosing healthier food items. Close to 80% of the respondents considered regulation on nutrition claims (such as low sugar, low fat and low salt) ‘very helpful’ or ‘quite helpful’.
Commenting on the findings, the Centre’s Director Dr Donald Li said, “Evidently, the Scheme has made a good start in its first year of operation in enabling consumers to make informed food choices. For sure, good public awareness and receptiveness of the Scheme can help the public gradually build up healthy eating habits by understanding the nutritional value of the food they consume through the nutrition labels.”
“Another noteworthy indication is the rise of public confidence in nutrition claims on pre-packaged food following the launch of the Scheme. What’s more, a majority of the respondents (73.2%) felt that the Scheme would encourage the food industry to introduce more healthy food products,” he added.
According to Dr Li, the survey findings also highlight a number of areas that warrant public attention. For example, the reasons cited by those who never consult nutrition labels are diverse; they either don’t understand (20.1%), don’t believe that the labels are useful (13.1%) or find it unnecessary to do so for frequently consumed items (25.6%).
“Clearly, quite a portion of the respondents overlooked the nutrition facts on the pre-packaged food items they regularly consume,” said Dr Li.
Meanwhile, although a majority of the respondents (85.4%) said they had heard of the “3 Low, 1 High” healthy eating principle, the survey findings show that consumers have insufficient understanding of its components. 21.4% cited items other than those included in the “3 Low, 1 High” principle (i.e. low fat, low sugar, low salt/ low sodium and high fibre). Another 20.9% said they did not know or could not name any one of them.
“Building up a healthy eating habit through the Scheme is an essential element of preventive healthcare. We do see the need for more targeted publicity programmes to help enhance public understanding of the nutrition components,” said Dr Li.
He added that the Centre was pursuing other healthcare-related studies, including the mechanism of ensuring the safety of food imported from the Mainland and the provision of primary care in the Pearl River Delta, especially with regard to Hong Kong residents.