Looking for That Label?

February 11/Hong Kong/South China Morning Post -- Most people do not read food labels, and practically no one can name all the key nutrition categories required by a labelling law, a University of Hong Kong survey found.

Of the 511 people, aged 12-49, surveyed, only 13% said they would read nutrition labels every time they bought prepackaged food products. Some 18% said they never read them.

Of the 183 people who never or rarely read the labels, 44% said there was no need to do so, as they had consumed the products for a long time without any problem.

The study was commissioned by Coca-Cola and performed in January.

Only one of the people surveyed could name the eight elements that must be listed on a nutrition label: energy, carbohydrates, sugars, total fat, saturated fat, trans-fats, protein and sodium.

Karie Pang Ka-lai, assistant director of HKU's public opinion program, who led the survey, said that person was a man in his 40s who had a university degree.

Half of the respondents did not know the total amount of energy required for a day -- about 2,000 kilocalories (kcal) for adult women and about 2,800 kcal for adult men.

Hong Kong Dietitians Association chairwoman Sylvia Lam See-way said their lack of knowledge could pose a health risk.

"If people do not know how much energy they need, they will easily overeat and become obese, which will increase the chance of developing chronic illnesses," she said. She was disappointed only 13% of respondents read nutrition labels and said they were especially important for patients with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. "Absorbing too much fat or sugar can worsen the condition of these patients."

The labelling of nutrition information on all prepackaged food products became compulsory as of July. As Hong Kong imports food from all over the world, information can be listed two ways -- "per serving size" as required in the U.S., and "per 100g" as required in the European Union.

Lam said it could be confusing for shoppers, who would not be able to directly compare the nutritional content of two products without having a calculator.

"I hope one day the government can make it compulsory for all manufacturers to list nutritional content in both 'per 100g' and 'per serving size'," she said. She hoped that information on reading nutrition labels could be taught in Hong Kong primary schools.

From the February 21, 2011, Prepared Foods E-dition