Defining ‘nutritious’: Study compares expert and consumer assessments of healthy snacks

By Nathan Gray contact

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Defining ‘nutritious’: Study compares expert and consumer assessments of healthy snacks
The term ‘nutritious’ is regularly used in product marketing, but the way in which consumers and ‘experts’ view the word may be different, say researchers calling for an agreed definition.

Writing in the journal Nutrients,​ the team behind the new study examined how people defined ‘nutritious’ and evaluated the term ‘nutritiousness’ – finding significant differences in the way experts and the general public (and consumer) understood and defined the terms.

 “In order to promote healthy eating and to design nutrition information panels that are relevant to consumer needs, it is important for nutrition experts and policy makers to understand how the general population define and interpret the term ‘nutritious’,” said​ the authors – led by Tamara Bucher from the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health (IFNH) at ETH Zürich.

“In line with how nutrient profile scores are defined, experts used terms such as micro- and macronutrients, vitamins and minerals, as well as nutrient density and concentration,”​ they said. “Lay participants, however, used more holistic and descriptive terms such as body needs, fuel, and fresh.”

The team noted that since nutrient profiling systems and on-pack nutrition labelling based on nutrient profiling systems are now implemented in several countries, differences in the perception of what constitutes a healthy product and the description of the term ‘nutritious’ between consumers and experts suggests that a standard definition may be needed.

“The term ‘nutritious’ is not currently regulated in most countries and little is known about how consumers interpret the term,”​ said the team. “The results also highlight the potential need for definitions and regulation of the term 'nutritious' in food marketing.”

Study details

Bucher and her colleagues asked 206 nutrition experts and 269 consumers to provide definitions for the term ‘nutritious’ before evaluating the ‘nutritiousness’ of 20 different snack foods in a cross-sectional survey.

“Expert and lay definitions differed considerably, with experts using terms such as nutrient-density, macro- and micronutrients, kilojoules/Calories, while lay consumers used descriptions such as fuel, fresh, natural, body needs, and functioning,” ​wrote the authors.

Furthermore, the average perception of snack foods differed significantly for 18 out of the 20 sample snacks – with the largest difference for yoghurts.

“The largest differences were found for natural and flavoured yoghurts and toast, with experts evaluating these foods as more nutritious,”​ they said. “Differences were smaller for the discretionary foods such as lollies, carrot cake, and rice cakes.”

Indeed, compared with the general consumer, the experts evaluated snack foods with better nutrition profile scores as more nutritious and foods with a lower nutrient profile score as less nutritious.

“Biases were found for certain foods such as ‘chocolate’, which was rated as more nutritious than expected from nutrient profile scores and ‘lollies’, which was ranked as less nutritious compared to the nutrient profile scores,”​ said the team.

They concluded that the findings will help to influence nutrition education, and suggest the potential need for standardised definitions and greater regulation of the terms when used in food product marketing.

Source: Nutrients
Volume 9, Number 8, Page 874; doi: 10.3390/nu9080874
“What Is Nutritious Snack Food? A Comparison of Expert and Layperson Assessments”
Authors: Tamara Bucher, et al

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