There is a huge gap in the food industry's understanding of how nutrition information on labels actually influences buying behaviour in the supermarket, according to a EUFIC study.
Professor Klaus Grunert, who conducted the study on behalf of the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), said there is still virtually no insight into how labelling information is used in a real-world shopping situation, and how this will affect consumers' dietary patterns.
"It is interesting that despite the wealth of information available on consumer opinions gathered from surveys, interviews and focus groups, there is an obvious lack of field research on this," he said.
"Understanding on-pack nutrition information in isolation is very different from understanding what this information means in the context of a weekly shopping excursion or composing a balanced diet."
Consumers like different formats
EUFIC's assessment on the provision of nutritional information was compiled from consumer opinions from 58 different European studies carried out since 2003. The findings were presented last week at the 1st World Congress of Public Health Nutrition.
In addition, what was clear from the review was that, although consumers are almost unanimous in wanting simplified information on the front of food packs, they differ in their liking for various formats.
These include health logos, 'traffic lights', GDA-based systems and energy labels.
Differences can be related to conflicting preferences for ease of use, being fully informed, and not being pressurised into behaving in a particular way. For example, EUFIC found that many consumers like colour coding, but some regard reds and greens on food products as too coercive.
Three factors identified
"The review shows that there are three basic factors that determine what consumers like about nutrition information on labels: simplicity, complete information and the freedom to make their own choice without coercion," said EUFIC's director general Dr Josephine Wills.
"Together, these factors are clearly incompatible, which is why different consumer profiles ascribe different priorities to each factor. This is reflected in some consumers preferring GDAs, some health logos and others colour-coded traffic light indicators."
This debate is currently being carried out in member states between the food industry, pressure groups and regulatory bodies. The traffic light scheme, for example, designed to provide at-a-glance information on whether a food is high, medium or low in total fat, sugar and salt (with red, yellow or green stickers), is supported by bodies such as the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA).
It claims that this system performs best for the majority of consumers at showing the key nutritional characteristics of a food simply and easily.
"Consumers have told us that they would like to make healthier choices, but find the current information confusing," said Food Standards Agency (FSA) chair Deirdre Hutton.
New guideline daily amounts
However, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) believes that new guideline daily amounts (GDAs) on food packaging is the best means of empowering consumers with vital nutritional knowledge. Food manufacturers and retailers, along with the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), issued a voluntary code of GDAs earlier this year in a clear attempt to pre-empt the FSA's traffic light scheme.
This debate over nutritional labelling is being carried out against a backdrop of growing concern over health. One in two South African women and one in three South African men are overweight. That is 45% of the population – just 20% less than the world's fattest nation, the United States. - (Decision News Media, October 2006)