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 European Union FLABEL project (Food Labeling to Advance Better Education for Life). The project provides research on consumer behavior and nutrition labels, and will provide guidelines for research, industry, and policy-makers.
In an EU-wide nutrition labeling audit carried out in 84 retail stores, more than 37,000 products from five product categories (i.e., sweet biscuits, breakfast cereals, chilled pre-packed ready meals, carbonated soft drinks, and yogurts) 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 Guideline Daily Amounts (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 did not translate 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 25–100 milliseconds.
Motivation was a major factor affecting the impact of nutrition labels on the choices made by consumers. Klaus Grunert, FLABEL Scientific Advisor and Professor at Aarhus University in Denmark, 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 labeling.”