Consumers baffled by GI labels

Related tags Nutrition Glycemic index Leatherhead Uk

Approximately one third of consumers are now aware of the glycaemic
index but most do not understand the concept sufficiently to be
able to interpret on-pack labelling, finds a new survey.

The research, carried out online by UK-based consultancy Leatherhead Food, confirms the growing interest in this dietary concept, given a boost by the carb-conscious climate created by the Atkins trend.

But while there have been some serious initiatives to push low-GI products in Europe in recent months- most notably by UK retailer Tesco, which has added GI values to a number of product labels- the survey demonstrates a poor comprehension of how the system should work.

Originally developed over 20 years ago to help diabetics manage their condition, the glycaemic index or GI ranks foods based on their effect on blood glucose levels.

Foods with a high GI (70 and above) are digested and metabolised rapidly, triggering large fluctuations of blood glucose levels and insulin demand, while low- or medium-GI foods (40-69) are digested and absorbed more slowly, giving a slower and sustained release of energy and contributing to longer-lasting feelings of satiety.

There are significant advantages to this ranking system - all foods can be labelled with a GI value and it does not restrict any basic food groups, allowing for a sensible diet. But experts note that foods cannot be selected in isolation.

"The glycaemic index should be used with other nutritional data because the classification of low GI does not always mean that a food is healthy in other ways,"​ says Jennie Brand Miller from the University of Sydney, heavily involved in developing the concept.

However Leatherhead's survey shows that UK consumers are unlikely to be aware of this advice. When shown a pack of Tesco pitta bread with a 'medium' GI logo, consumers said the label did not have enough information to allow them to make an informed decision.

"Those consumers who had heard of GI, were generally aware that low GI foods were more beneficial to health than those with a high index, but they were also aware that it was not necessarily good to cut out all medium and GI foods as these had their place in moderation in a healthy diet."

"However, some 25 per cent of consumers in our survey believed that foods with a high or medium GI were healthier than those with a low GI. This shows that not all consumers fully understand the GI as they proclaim,"​ said Leatherhead.

Consumers were also sceptical about GI, with some reporting it to be just another food industry marketing ploy.

"In order for the GI to be successful, it will be necessary to educate the consumer and remove feelings of skepticism in the marketplace,"​ notes the report.

The findings will influence future food formulation. Sugar replacers and easily digestible starches, increasingly being used to lower calories and carbs, could also be used to reposition these products as low-GI foods.

The European market for specifically labelled GI products remains neglible, according to Leatherhead, and even in Australia and South Africa where the market is more developed these products account for less than 1 per cent of the total food and drink market.

But improving consumer information through advertising and in-store promotional material could help grow the weight control foods market, already worth around £5 billion (€7.1bn) in the UK.

More information on this report is available from Leatherhead​. The firm contacted 1093 people in the UK via the internet. Of these, 371 had heard of GI who then went on to complete the survey in August this year.

The report also discusses ingredients with potential in low-GI formulations, including sweetening agents, speciality carbohydrates, resistant starches, soluble fibres, and inulin and oligofructose.

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