Nutrition labelling can guide consumers but a lack of motivation and attention stand in the way of healthier food choices
Despite good understanding and prevalence of nutrition information on food labels in Europe, a lack of motivation and attention of consumers prevents labels from impacting positively on food choices.
These are the final results from the FLABEL project (Food Labelling to Advance Better Education for Life). The project provides state-of-the-art research on consumer behaviour and nutrition labels, and will provide guidelines for research, industry and policy-makers.
Nutrition labelling may be a quick guide to inform consumers about the nutritional value of different products, however use and actual effects on shopping basket composition have been largely unknown. Additionally, the different formats already in place (Nutrition table, Traffic Light scheme, Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA), Health Logos, etc.) may stimulate different responses. FLABEL therefore aimed to fully examine the aspects that lead from label availability to effects on dietary intake.
In an EU-wide nutrition labelling audit carried out in 84 retail stores, more than 37,000 products of five product categories, sweet biscuits, breakfast cereals, chilled pre-packed ready meals, carbonated soft drinks, and yoghurts were examined. FLABEL found that 85% of all products carried nutrition information on the back of the pack, and 48% on the front of the pack. The most widespread back of pack format was the tabular or linear listing of calorific value and nutrient composition at 84%; whereas nutrition claims and GDA were the most prevalent forms of front of pack nutrition information, both averaging 25%.
When information was provided on key nutrients (i.e. fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt) and energy, most consumers were able to correctly rank products according to healthiness. Additional information, such as Health Logos, GDA or Traffic Lights, only marginally improved the accuracy of this ranking.
Consumers in the study said they preferred labels that provide complete information, but consumer liking and intention to use these labels, was not translated into actual product choices.
A big issue affecting the impact of nutrition labels on actual food purchases made by consumers was lack of attention to the nutrition information. FLABEL found that food packages held consumers’ visual attention for very short periods, with the average attention to elements of nutrition labels being between 25 and 100 milliseconds, as measured by sophisticated eye-tracking equipment.
FLABEL Scientific Advisor Professor Klaus Grunert , of Aarhus University in Denmark, suggests that “the FLABEL research shows the most promising option for increasing consumers’ attention to, and use of, nutrition information on food labels, is to provide information on key nutrients and energy on the front of the pack, in a consistent way. Complementing this information with a health logo can also increase attention to, and use of, the information, especially when the consumer is under time pressure. Similarly, use of colour coding can increase attention and use in certain situations, although the effects of both are not strong.”
Motivation was a major factor affecting the impact of nutrition labels on the choices made by consumers. Grunert explains that “when prompted, consumers were able to identify which products were healthier, but they did not use this information to choose which product they prefer. A lack of consumer motivation, therefore, is one factor standing in the way of healthy food choices resulting from nutrition labelling.”
These results will be presented on Thursday 24 November and Friday 25 November at the final FLABEL conference and consensus workshop with key stakeholders, where the implications of the project results will be discussed.
The FLABEL consortium is comprised of 13 partners from 8 countries, ranging from academic experts, retailers, SME-representatives to not-for-profit organisations, and is thus well placed to provide key insights into the role that nutrition information on food labels plays.
FLABEL - Food Labelling to Advance Better Education for Life - receives research funding from the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (Contract n° 211905). See www.flabel.org
Professor Klaus G. Grunert
Klaus Grunert is Professor of Marketing at Aarhus University in Denmark, and founder and director of MAPP - Center for Research on Customer Relations in the Food Sector, and FLABEL Scientific Advisor. firstname.lastname@example.org
Prof. Grunert has done extensive research in the areas of consumer quality perception and food choice, and insights into consumer behaviour. As director of MAPP, he has carried out more than 50 collaboration projects including several pan-European studies. He is the author of 12 books, over 80 academic papers in international refereed journals and numerous other publications.
Klaus Grunert is a past president of the European Marketing Academy, holds a part-time position as Professor of Fisheries Marketing at the University of Tromsø in Norway and is Professor of the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management.
About the European Food Information Council (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.
For more information about EUFIC see www.eufic.org.