FAYETTEVILLE, ARK. — Consumers are often misinterpreting and misunderstanding trans fat information found on the Nutrition Facts Panel, according to a University of Arkansas study.

"We found that in the absence of general knowledge about trans fat, especially without a specific understanding that 4 grams of trans fat is high, even motivated consumers — that is, those who consult the Nutrition Facts Panel on food packages and want to know more about the food they eat — appear to misinterpret the meaning of trans-fat information," said Betsy Howlett, one of the researchers. "In other words, nutritionally motivated consumers lacking appropriate prior knowledge make inappropriate product judgments. That is a troubling, unintended consequence of the current trans-fat disclosure on the Nutrition Facts Panel."

The problem is unlike other panel categories, trans fat does not have a percentage of recommended daily value, and if consumers use other nutrient or daily-value percentage levels as reference points, the absolute level of trans fat may appear low when it is actually high. Specifically, while 4 grams of trans fat might appear low compared with levels of saturated fat found in food, this is actually 70% of the total daily consumption average of trans fat for the U.S. consumer.

"When consumers were presented with a high trans-fat product, we found the highest purchase intentions and most favorable nutrition perceptions among consumers who were highly motivated to examine nutrition information but did not have additional information provided to them to help them interpret the trans-fat level correctly," said Scot Burton, another researcher on the team. "Normally, such nutritionally motivated consumers make the best decisions from using the calorie and nutrient information found in the Nutrition Facts Panel."