The YouGov poll found that about two-thirds of UK adults underestimated the level of calories in foods such as houmous (only 32 per cent selected this as high in calories) and ‘light’ mayonnaise (only 29 per cent selected this as high in calories). This is a concern because being overweight is a factor in a number of diseases, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Confusion around terms such as ‘light’ or ‘reduced fat’ when used for foods that are actually high in calories is compounding the problem, the charity said.
Maya Monteiro, Senior Education Manager at WCRF, said: “Despite decades of increasing awareness about calories and healthy eating, it seems a lot of people are still confused about the calorie content of everyday foods.
“This troubling lack of understanding is perhaps not helped by labels such as ‘light’ and ‘reduced fat’ when these are applied to foods which still have a high calorie content.
“This is why WCRF tries to help people understand the information on food labels. If people are unaware which foods contain lots of calories then it makes it even more difficult to adopt a diet that can help maintain a healthy weight. This is important because being overweight is a major factor in several potentially fatal diseases, including cancer.
“We hope the findings of this survey help to raise awareness of the importance of checking food labels because it is clear that it is not always obvious which foods are high in calories. The study also highlights the importance of having a system of food labelling that is both easy to understand and widely used.”
Both houmous and ‘light’ mayonnaise are high-calorie, or high in energy density. Houmous contains an average 332 calories per 100g and ‘light’ or ‘reduced fat’ mayonnaise contains an average of 259 calories.
These exceed WCRF’s definition of foods high in energy density, which are foods that contain more than about 225 calories per 100g.
A fifth (20 per cent) think bananas are high in calories although the fruit contains just 95 calories per 100g on average, making it a low energy-dense food.
However, a high proportion of the poll – 75 per cent – recognised that flapjacks are high calorie. They have an average of 439 calories per 100g.
Ms Monteiro added: “At this time of year many people make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight but to do this it is important that they understand how to determine whether a food is high in calories.
“Reduced fat doesn’t necessarily mean low fat. It is important for people to be able to make informed choices about the food they eat.”
To help inform people about the energy density of different foods and drinks, WCRF has launched the Energy Density Calculator on its website www.wcrf-uk.org/cancer_prevention/weight/energy_density_calculator
Visitors can search for a specific food from a drop down menu or enter the calories per 100g listed on the food label to find out if the food is low, medium or high in energy density.
One of WCRF’s 10 Recommendations for Cancer Prevention is to avoid sugary drinks and energy-dense foods. This is because they can lead to weight gain and there is strong evidence that excess body fat increases the risk of six types of cancer, including bowel cancer and breast cancer.
Notes to editors:
- All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2128 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 9 – 12 December 2011. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).
- The sample was asked to identify high-calorie foods (defined as 225 calories per 100g or greater) out of a list of houmous, bananas, flapjacks, cornflakes, grapes, plain bagels, light mayonnaise and parsnips.
- The average calorie content was worked out by comparing foods at Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s. For loose foods (bananas, grapes and parsnips) the calorie content was taken from McCance and Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods.
- The survey showed that women might be better than men in identifying high calorie food. For houmous 40 per cent of women and 24 per cent of men identified it as high in calories although for ‘light’ mayonnaise the figures are 30 per cent (men) to 29 per cent (women).
- For Department of Health definitions of light/lite, low fat and other labelling guidelines, see: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/food-labelling-terms.aspx#li