There has been a significant amount of activity during the past few months and even years regarding the introduction of nutrition information programs such as front-of-package labeling schemes, shelf-tags highlighting the nutrition content of foods sold at retail, and calorie counts on menus. While the efforts are laudable, there is a shortcoming — Many consumers lack the basic knowledge to practically use the information. What is the value of telling consumers how much sugar and sodium as well as how many calories are in a serving if they don’t understand how much they should be consuming on a daily basis?

The list of entities that have made headlines in this publication and many others by announcing new nutrition information efforts during the past few months range from the industry’s largest companies, through their representative trade association the Grocery Manufacturers Association, to retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Supervalu and Safeway. The GMA’s effort, called Nutrition Keys, is a front-of-package labeling effort that highlights core nutrition information such as the number of calories, grams of saturated fat, milligrams of sodium and grams of sugar in a product. The effort also highlights “nutrients to encourage” such as potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium and iron. Wal-Mart is also in the process of developing its own front-of-package labeling system that will highlight specific pieces of nutrition information.

Like other retailers, Safeway and Supervalu are using shelf-tags to highlight food and beverage products the retailers, through proprietary methods, deem to meet specific nutrition criteria. The Safeway program is called SimpleNutrition and is designed to alert shoppers to the benefits of specific nutrients that are featured in a product. Supervalu, through its recently upgraded nutrition IQ program, strives to provide consumers with information similar to the Safeway endeavor.

The shortcoming of these efforts is there are many consumers who lack the fundamental knowledge to make the nutrition information provided through these efforts useful. The International Food Information Council Foundation’s “Food & Health” Survey in 2010 showed that only 12% of the 1,024 consumers surveyed could accurately estimate the number of calories they should consume in a day for a person of their age, height, weight and physical activity.

An additional insight from the annual survey showed that of those consumers who said they were trying to lose or maintain their weight only 19% were keeping track of the calories they consumed. Almost half of the consumers surveyed also could not identify how many calories they burn in a day.

Prior to the release of the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010” report, the Dietary Guidelines Alliance, which consists of groups such as the American Dietetic Association, the Grain Foods Foundation, the GMA and many others, commissioned a study to help the group better understand exactly what parents know and what they don’t know about food and health topics. Among the key findings was the insight “Many consumers lack the basic understanding of the fundamentals of constructing a healthful diet, never mind some of the more sophisticated concepts, such as calories in and out,” the DGA said.

A positive aspect of both the IFIC and DGA efforts is that a majority of the consumers involved in the surveys also said they are interested in achieving a healthy weight and maintaining their overall health and wellness. The challenge facing food and beverage processors and public health authorities is how to bridge the nutrition knowledge gap that exists.

There is no easy resolution to the issue. It will take time and a variety of efforts to help make consumers more nutrition literate.

But make no mistake — Initiatives to improve consumer nutrition knowledge are necessary. Otherwise the millions of dollars being invested to develop and implement programs such as the GMA’s Nutrition Keys program and Safeway’s SimpleNutrition system will not be a sound investment, because many consumers lack the knowledge to use them.