This is the ingredient people avoid the most when making healthy food choices

Diets are hard, but perhaps that’s what makes them worthwhile in the first place. Why is it that the foods that taste the best are usually the most unhealthy? Conversely, has anyone ever tried a brussel sprout and actually enjoyed the taste? These are questions as old as time, and the answers still elude most of us. 

Now, an interesting new study is offering a glimpse into the psyche of health-conscious food shoppers. Above all other ingredients or substances, such as salt and fat, the amount of sugar in food products is the number one concern for shoppers while browsing grocery store aisles and inspecting nutrition facts.

The research was held at the University of Nottingham, and included 858 participants. Each person was given a survey constructed using the traffic light labeling system (TLL). 

The TLL is a color-based nutrition labeling system introduced in the UK intended to make it easier than ever for shoppers to quickly recognize foods high or low in substances like salt and sugar. As you can probably imagine, ingredients depicting the color green are low in such ingredients, while red is reserved for high levels, and amber represents a medium amount.

Across the board, survey respondents indicated that sugar levels were the most pressing factor that influenced their decision to either buy or pass on a product. 

“When using the TLL consumers often have to make trade-offs between undesirable attributes and decide which to use to guide them in making a choice. We wanted to find out whether it was fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt they most wanted to avoid and see whether the traffic light labeling was influencing this decision,” explains study author Ola Anabtawi, a dietician and PhD researcher, in a press release.

For the survey, respondents were shown the same food product three times, each with varying nutritional information, and asked to choose which one they believed to be the healthiest. This was carried out with three different food items; premade sandwiches, biscuits (cookies), and breakfast cereal.

Foods with nutritional information indicating a high sugar content were overwhelmingly chosen as the least healthy. Most participants were far more comfortable indulging in some snacks with high levels of saturated fat, salt, and excess fat.

There was a fairly universal visual effect as well. Most participants considered packages with just one red-colored nutrition fact to be unhealthy, regardless of sugar levels.

“Despite the lack of knowledge about the recommendations underpinning the TLL criteria participants’ decisions about the healthiness of food products were significantly influenced by TLL information on the items’ sugar content. TLL do, therefore, appear to guide consumers’ beliefs in the absence of deep knowledge,” Ola adds.

“The dominance of sugar in decision-making shows the labeling system is having an impact in the current public health climate. However, it is important to consider the effect of disregarding other nutrients (i.e. fat and salt) for people with different nutritional needs. We suggest raising awareness of all nutrients to help the public achieve a well- balanced diet,” she concludes.

Sugar isn’t healthy, but saturated fats and salts can be just as detrimental to fitness and weight loss goals. Sweets are something to avoid while on a diet, but these results suggest that consumers may be too quick to skip that tempting candy bar and instead reward themselves with a bag of chips. 

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.