Confused Europeans snub nutritional label information

Related tags Consumers Nutrition

The majority of European consumers appreciate the benefits of
eating healthily but remain confused over the terminology used in
nutritional labelling, according to a recent report by the European
Food Information Council (EUFIC), Tom Armitage writes.

The study, involving French, German, Italian and UK consumers, offers a rare insight into European consumers' attitudes towards food labelling and nutrition and examines a number of under-researched factors including European consumers' motivation to read labels and the relationship between label reading and food intake.

It concluded that while the majority of consumers have a basic understanding that over-indulgence in food tends to lead to diet-related health problems, many remain unclear as to what the nutritional information displayed on food packaging means.

French and German consumers, for instance, failed to distinguish sodium from salt, while many European consumers understood calories but not kilojoules.

The Brussels-based food and health education service condemned the low fat and light labels used on food packaging for being "restrictive"​ and "negative"​ and urged food manufacturers to keep such labels simple, despite proving increasingly popular among both consumers and manufacturers.

Meanwhile, consumers from all four countries berated the small print used on nutritional labels for being "too technical"​. In response, EUFIC advises companies to make more of an effort to explain the complex terminology to consumers through the use of readable, clear, attractive and well-structured labelling.

But contrary to governmental labelling proposals, such as the controversial incorporation of a nutritional traffic light labelling system onto UK food packaging, EUFIC believes that the nutrition system "is not about qualifying into good or bad products, it is about helping to integrate any product into a good diet"​.

"The role of labels is not clear, nutritional information is often confused with the ingredients list, and in many cases people do not understand how to integrate the provided information into their daily dietary choices,"EUFIC​ added.

While French, German and Italian consumers still have limited access to nutritional information on their products, British consumers expect to see it appearing across products and categories in all markets.

EUFIC notes, however, that the majority of consumers already have a ready-formed perception of a brand's healthiness (thanks largely to extensive marketing campaigns) and consumers only consult nutritional labels if they have a specific condition, for instance diabetes or high-cholesterol.

"Even when armed with the information, people find it difficult to relate this to their day to day eating experience,"​ EUFIC noted.

It appears, however, that public and private information campaigns, together with increased media exposure, are the most successful ways of embedding nutritional information into the public's conscience.

For example, the UK's government's 'five a day' scheme to encourage consumers to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables daily, was consistently recalled by the UK participants involved in EUFIC's study last May.

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