People need to better understand food labelling for the sake of waste and safety, researchers have said.

A team from the George Washington University in America said many consumers believe they have a good understanding of food labels but new research has proven otherwise.

The study involved more than 2,600 people who were asked to explain their understanding of a two-tiered labelling system.

Dr Catherine Turvey, from the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences from the university, said: “Our study showed that an overwhelming majority of consumers say that they use food date labels to make decisions about food and say they know what the labels mean.

“Despite confidently using date labels, many consumers misinterpreted the labels and continued to misunderstand even after reading educational messaging that explained the labels’ meaning.”

Nearly half of those surveyed (46 per cent) said they knew what the label “best if use by” meant and less than a quarter reported that the “use by” label means the food is not safe to eat after the specific date stated.

Dr Turvey added: “Responses to the survey suggest that date labels are so familiar that some consumers believe they are boring, self-explanatory, or common sense despite misunderstanding the labels. Unwarranted confidence and the familiarity of date labels may make consumers less attentive to educational messaging that explains the food industry’s labelling system.”

During the trial the researchers looked at different ways they could communicate with consumers via food labels. They have suggested that framing the label using messages about saving money or avoiding waste might increase people’s understanding.

The findings have been published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

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