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Nutrition labels on food and drinks in the UK – available, understood but not used

Latest nutrition label research comforts view that UK consumers are exposed to basic nutrition information on food labels, understand them, but may not have the motivation to use labels to make healthy choices.

European Food Information Council (EUFIC), Brussels, 13 October 2010:  When asked to identify the most healthful product among three comparable ready meals in a UK study, most respondents were able to do so, with 88% of respondents correctly doing so using Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) labels, 84% through Traffic Lights (TL) and 83% when shown hybrid labels of GDAs and Traffic Lights. On a scale of 1 to 10 (highest), respondents’ subjective understanding of health information on labels was 7.0 for GDAs and 6.9 for Traffic Lights. Percentages of correct answers about nutrient levels in three different ready meals varied between 72% and 92%. All of these figures indicate a high level of understanding of label information “independent of the format” in which the information appears, conclude the authors of a just published study in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Appetite.

The UK study, conducted by the Danish Aarhus University and the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) with the co-operation of several UK food retailers, measures consumer use and understanding of nutrition information on labels in a real store situation. Previous studies where consumers were asked how often they use label information, resulted in significant over-reporting of consumer use of food labels. This time researchers included in-store observation and interviews in addition to a take-home survey, in an attempt to avoid the over-reporting. Over 2000 interviews were conducted in the UK study, allowing researchers to extend previous findings with improved measures of nutrition knowledge and point-of-purchase decision-making.

The good news concerning UK consumer understanding of food labels generally, is mitigated however by the study’s in store-observation and interview results that determined that only 27% of respondents actually used the information to make their choices. While levels of understanding nutrition information may be explained by demographic factors, the study’s authors found that the “only variable having a direct effect on use of nutrition information in the store” was interest in healthy eating. Across six food categories studied, the main reason cited for choosing a particular product was taste, not healthy eating.

With little difference recorded as to how the format of the label affects consumer understanding, the authors suggest there has been too much focus on labelling and too little on “motivation for healthy eating”. The authors conclude that “only when labelling policy is embedded in a broader nutrition policy that uses multiple instruments to increase interest in healthy eating can both understandability and use of nutrition information on food labels be expected to increase.”

The research conducted in the UK is part of a larger study undertaken in six European countries. The understanding of labels was high in the UK, Sweden and Germany and lower in France, Poland and Hungary. The larger study also revealed differences in interest in healthy eating between countries.

With nutrition information found on 85% of food in 5 categories in Europe, the FLABEL project aims to measure impact on food choice

The first EU-wide study to provide insight into current exposure of consumers to nutrition information on food and drink labels, known as FLABEL (Food Labelling to Advance Better Education for Life), found tabular/linear nutrition information on a large majority of products in five product categories (ready meals, carbonated soft drinks, yoghurts, breakfast cereals and sweet biscuits) across 84 retail stores in EU-27 and Turkey.

In the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a paper co-authored by EUFIC on behalf of FLABEL reveals that 96% of the products audited in the UK had back-of-pack (BOP) nutrition labelling. Even though providing nutrition information on food packages is still voluntary in Europe - unless the manufacturer makes a health or nutrition claim, FLABEL research also showed that 82% of those products audited in the UK also exhibited front-of-pack (FOP) information.

In the year ahead, the FLABEL project will shed light on how nutrition information on food and drink products impacts on consumers’ dietary choices.

About EUFIC:

The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) is a non-profit organisation which provides science-based information on food safety & quality and health & nutrition to the media, health and nutrition professionals and educators, in a way that promotes consumer understanding. EUFIC receives funding from companies in the European Food and Drink sector, and from the European Commission on a project basis.