Food labels are good, but consumers do not read them

Food labels host a whole lot of meaningful nutrition informations, yet European consumers seldom pay attention to them. Main reasons? Lack of motivation and attention,and that prevents labels from impacting positively on food choices.

These are the final results from the Food Labelling to Advance Better Education for Life (FLABEL ) project, providing state-of-the-art research on consumer behaviour and nutrition labels, andalso 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’s goal was to fully examine what aspects and factors actually lead from label availability to effects on dietary intake.

The project’s experts carried out an EU-wide nutrition labelling audit. Eighty-four  retail stores and 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. Results indicate 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.


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