CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Illiteracy in the U.S. goes beyond reading and writing. It now extends to food.

Nutritional illiteracy has reached epic proportions and is a leading contributor to poor dietary behavior and obesity in the U.S., according to the Food for Life Study just released by marketing consultancy Yankelovich Inc.

According to the study, a majority of Americans (83 percent) believe that individuals themselves are most responsible for the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and that they are personally responsible for the health of their diet.

However, although willing to accept personal responsibility for their health and well-being, they are stymied by their inability to properly understand food labels and basic nutrition facts. When asked to grade their diets on a scale of A through F, most Americans rate their diets a D.

"This 'nutritional naivete' will continue to offset much of the positive outreach being done to combat obesity and other diseases in the U.S.," said Steve Bodhaine, group president, Yankelovich. "Consumers need better tools to make intelligent decisions. The data show a glaring lack of understanding of the basics of nutrition and help make it easy to see why the right messages aren't getting through. Ongoing changes in food labeling and better access to diet and nutritional information will help get to the root of this problem."

"Fortunately, there are solutions," said J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich. "Nutritional illiteracy is particularly pronounced across various groups of the population, but we have identified tools and databases that zero in on these different segments. Improving nutritional literacy requires different strategies depending on a person's overall attitude toward health and wellness. By identifying these strategies, we can create tools for marketing purposes and public policy initiatives to attack the problem."

The Yankelovich study is the first in-depth analysis of consumers' attitudes and behaviors toward diet, nutrition and preventative healthcare.

Nutritional labels hard to read

According to the study, people claim to rely heavily on nutritional labels and personal experiences to plan healthy meals or evaluate the healthfulness of foods. Ironically, even though 63 percent of respondents said they believe they have a fair to very good understanding of nutritional information on labels, their actions indicate otherwise. In fact:

  • Caloric Consumption. Half of the respondents said they don't know how many calories they should consume daily, and only 27 percent ventured to guess between 1,500 and 2,500 calories per day.

  • Diet Dilemma. More than 80 percent indicated that they don't know how much total fat, carbohydrates or sodium they should consume as part of a 2,000-calorie daily diet.

  • Ounce vs. Gram. When asked whether an ounce or a gram was larger, nearly one-third of respondents (28 percent) incorrectly responded that a gram is bigger.

  • "We have taught people how to compare labels when shopping for food, but not to understand what they are reading," Bodhaine said. "As a result, 72 percent of Americans simply say if food doesn't taste good, they won't eat it, no matter how healthy and nutritious it is."

    Furthermore, most people are unaware of the interactive food Web site, launched by the USDA with great fanfare in 2005 to help people personalize their approach to diet and nutrition.

    More than three-quarters (83 percent) have never visited the site, including 61 percent who have never even heard of it, according to Yankelovich. Of those who have visited the site, almost half (45 percent) do not use any of the tools for advice on the amounts they should eat in each of the food groups.

    Light at the end of the tunnel
    According to Yankelovich, some messages are getting through, at least on the surface. When asked the most important characteristics that consumers look for when shopping for health foods, the top five responses were: freshness, whole grain, low-fat, high in fiber and low cholesterol.

    "These are the things we have been teaching people to look for, but they don't know what these things are," Bodhaine said. "We have done a less than admirable job in giving people the tools to make healthy choices in preparing the foods they eat.

    "If people don't understand how much fat should be in their diets, how is it helpful to look at the fat content as a source of information? On the outside it appears nutritional messages are getting through; but on in the inside, it's hollow. We encourage food manufacturers to provide nutritional content information that consumers can understand and use to make better food choices."

    Other characteristics that respondents identified as increasing their chances of buying particular foods include:

  • Naturally grown (57%)

  • Added vitamins and minerals (53%)

  • U.S. grown (50%)

  • Organically grown (45%).

  • In addition, respondents indicate that they are willing to pay price premiums for good food, including 63 percent who are willing to pay up to 10 percent more for good-tasting and nutritious food and 44 percent who are willing to pay up to 20 percent more.

    Yankelovich Inc., Chapel Hill, N.C., has used its Yankelovich MONITOR(R) to track and forecast consumer value and lifestyle trends for more than 30 years.

    The Yankelovich MONITOR Perspective is an on-going series of in-depth topical surveys on important marketing issues. Each Perspective is dedicated to a single topic that is reported and analyzed within the framework and context of the trends tracked by the Yankelovich MONITOR.

    SOURCE: Yankelovich Inc. via Business Wire.