WASHINGTON (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS)Application clear graphic nutrition labels on the front of packaged foods could help patients make healthier food choices, according to a study out of the George Institute of Global Health, Sydney.

Bruce Neal, PhD, senior director of the food policy division at the institute, and his colleagues asked 1,578 study participants to use a smart phone scanner to record the packaged foods they bought over the course of a week. Nutrition information from those scans was used to derive a nutrient profile score and plugged into four different food labeling systems on a randomized basis:

Nutrient information provided by HSR was found to be noninferior to the alternatives, Dr. Neal said at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology.

HSR earned a superiority score of 0.38, 0.1, and 0.23 when compared with MTL, DIG, and NIP labels, respectively, according to the study.

On secondary outcomes, HSR again proved noninferior to the other three systems for presenting understandable information on sugar, saturated fat, energy density, and cost (all P less than .05) but not sodium (P greater than .08).

Dr. Neal attributed the “unimpressive results” in part to the use of the smart phone interface.

“The trial used a smart phone design, which is a suboptimal surrogate, compared with printed on every pack. In the real world it would work better,” he said in a video interview .

While overall mean nutrition information was found to be not inferior, HSR scored significantly higher that the alternatives in user perception. In understandability, HSR scored 0.62 (P = .005), 1.02 (P less than .001), and 0.22 (P equal .32), compared with MTL, DIG, and NIP, respectively.

HSR also scored significantly higher among participants in “value of having on all food packs,” especially against DIG, scoring 0.70 (P = .002).

“It is absolutely clear that Health Star Rating is preferred to any of the other formats by consumers,” Dr. Neal said. “It is probably [also] fair to say Health Star is now the Australian government’s strongest choice.”

Participants were on average 38 years old, overwhelmingly female (84%), and well educated with 72% reporting a tertiary education or higher. Despite this more affluent and educated population, Dr. Neal and his colleagues believe that HSR can be used with any group.

“We are embarking on a project to roll out this smart phone application with a different interface suited to other, disadvantaged groups,” Dr. Neal said. “We are also working with the [Australian] state government to use Health Star for fast food restaurants and school canteens, as well as government procurement for use in hospitals and prisons.”

The study was limited by its reliance on participants to record their own purchases, Dr. Neal added.

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