Various consumer research studies on carbohydrates and health have been conducted. Results from these studies provide insight into consumer awareness and attitudes.

Knowledge and Attitudes about Sugar

Scientists and health professionals are in general agreement that a variety of carbohydrates (sugars, starches and fibre) should make up the greatest proportion of a healthy diet (Institute of Medicine, 2005). Health Canada recommends that 45-65% of our daily calories come from carbohydrates. This is in sharp contrast to the messages consumers frequently hear, such as those promoting the benefits of low carbohydrate diets. Not surprisingly, consumer research demonstrates that the majority of Canadians have a mixed understanding of carbohydrates and their relationship to health.

Every two years, random samples of Canadians from major cities across the country are surveyed (Ipsos-ASI, 2011). This nation-wide survey has been conducted since 1985 and has tracked Canadians’ attitudes and knowledge of carbohydrates (particularly sugar) over time. Results show that most Canadians have a poor understanding of sugar in relation to Calories, but have a better understanding of carbohydrates in general.

Canadians continue to overestimate the number of Calories in sugar – in 2011, less than 10% knew that one teaspoon of sugar contains 16 Calories. The median response from Canadian consumers was 70 Calories per teaspoon, almost 5 times higher than the actual amount. This median response was also higher compared to previous years (see figure below).

Consumers Continue to Overestimate the Calories in a tsp of Sugar Consumer response = 70 Calories/tsp Actual amount = 16 Calories/tsp
Calories/tsp
1995 45 16
1996 50 16
1998 30 16
2002 49 16
2004 48 16
2006 49 16
2007 47 16
2011 70 16

Many Canadians also appear to be unaware that sugar has half the Calories of fat. In 2011, fewer Canadians agreed with the statement "Sugar has half the calories of fat." The average response was 2.8 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being "agree completely." Consumer agreement with this statement has shown a modest downwards trend over the last two decades (see figure below).

Fewer Consumers Understand that Sugar has Half the Calories of Fat 5 = Agree Completely, 1 = Disagree Completely
1991 3.4
1994 3.3
1998 3.2
2000 3
2002 3.1
2004 2.9
2006 3
2007 2.93
2011 2.79

Consumers do appear to understand that sugar is a carbohydrate and that sugar is a natural product. The understanding that sugar is a carbohydrate has increased since the early 1990s and has remained consistent over the last decade. See figure below for average scores on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being "agree completely."

Canadians appear to have mixed reviews on the effectiveness of low carbohydrate diets. In 2011, just over half of Canadian consumers agreed with the statement "Low carbohydrate diets are effective for losing weight." By contrast, the majority of Canadians did not agree with the statement "Low carbohydrate diets will help people lose weight and keep it off." It appears that Canadians are generally aware that low carbohydrate diets are not the solution for a healthy weight. The responses to these questions have remained consistent over the last decade. See figure below for average scores on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being "agree completely."

Consumers are Generally Aware that Low Carbohydrate Diets are Not the Solution for a Healthy Weight Low carbohydrate diets are effective for losing weight Low carbohydrate diets will help people lose weight and keep it off
5 = Agree Completely, 1 = Disagree Completely
2000 3.4 2.9
2004 3.47 2.69
2007 3.54 2.85
2011 3.51 2.75

The mixed understanding of carbohydrates and their relationship to health may in part be due to where consumers obtain their nutrition information. Surveys investigating Canadians’ general knowledge, attitudes and behavior towards food and nutrition issues have found that Canadians obtain nutrition information through various sources with the most popular being those that are easy and independently accessible. In 2013, the Canadian Foundation of Dietetic Research reported that the top sources from which Canadians had received information on food and nutrition in the past year were food labels, the internet, and print media (magazines, newspapers and books) (CFDR, 2014). Of the 13 categories, physicians and other or alternative health professionals ranked fifth while dietitians ranked last.

Despite dietitians being identified as the most credible source of nutrition information, Canadians generally have limited access to these experts and therefore do not use dietitians as a primary source of nutrition information. This combined with Canadians’ reliance on the internet for nutrition information may perpetuate misinformation and confusion about carbohydrates and health. Consequently, consumer awareness and interpretation of nutrition messages may not be consistent with current science and dietary guidance. There is clearly a significant challenge ahead in finding simple, understandable nutrition messages about carbohydrates that can easily and readily reach consumers and lead to healthier diets.

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