Simple front-of-pack nutritional labelling and endorsement by health organisations are most efficient in informing consumers, according to a new Unilever study.
Scientists studied consumer friendliness and the ability to differentiate between healthy and less healthy option using eight different nutrition labels on 2,406 men and women from the UK, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
The results were published this month in Appetite, where the researcher wrote: "Our results indicated that front-of-pack labelling formats help consumers make healthier choices and that there are no major differences between simpler and more detailed labelling formats.
"However, when taking into account the shopping environment, we suggest a simple tick logo on the front-of-pack to complement the detailed back-of-pack nutritional information fact box."
The European Commission is in the process of establishing recommendations for food labelling to help consumers reduce the intake of saturated fatty acids, trans fats, sodium and sugar.
In the meantime though, a number of different labelling schemes have been devised by industry and retailers across Europe and the world. The best approach to labelling nutritional information has sparked lively debate and there has been some concern on the lack of continuity within the industry.
Detailed labels include the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA), introduced by the Confederation of Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA), which shows the amount in grams and percentages of calories, sugar, fat, saturates and salt per serving.
There is also the Multiple Traffic Light label, recommended by the UK Food Standards Agency, and the Wheel of Health.
Examples of simple symbols are Sweden's Green Keyhole, Canada's Shop Smart with Heart, Australia's Pick the Tick, and PepsiCo's Smart Spot.
The first part of Unilever's study, the focus was on comprehension, liking and credibility of the labelling formats as well as the impact of these formats on perceived healthiness of the products.
It tested 1,630 participants online, presenting them with a random three out of at six nutrition labelling formats. They were asked to rate them and then answer questions.
Results showed that, on average, participants found all nutrition labelling formats easy to understand, reasonably credible and likable. The labelling formats' credibility was strongly increased through endorsement by national and international health organisations.
This was an area of debate when preparing the Health Claims Regulation last July. This regulation had originally intended to ban food product endorsement across Europe, because many member states considered it merely a money-making strategy.
However, because it is a method used in some countries, such as the UK, and provides funds to charities, the regulation was made more lenient, making endorsement possible if it meets national laws.
The Healthier Choice Tick was found to most consistently allow consumers to differentiate between healthy and less healthy, while the Multiple Traffic Light scored the worst.
The second study looked at decision-making and included behavioural intention measures, which predict how likely it is that the consumer will change their product choices.
It exposed 776 participants from Italy and the UK to four different labelling formats (the Healthier Choice Tick, Stars, Multiple Choice Tick and GDA) and asked them to evaluate the food products.
Results showed that healthy choices can be made faster with the simpler front-of-pack formats Healthier Choice Tick or Stars, than with more detailed GDA scores. Participants needed almost 10 seconds more to evaluate products with GDA scores.
The study showed the success of front-of-pack labelling in helping consumers make healthy choices.
Simple labels, supported by a back-of pack nutritional information fact box and endorsement from a health organisation, could have "a substantial positive impact on public health".
The report concludes that a multitude of different labelling formats in confusing, decreasing their effectiveness.
It says: "The current challenge is therefore to come up with a harmonised European or even global front-of-pack labelling format across all foods."
Volume 50, Issue 1, Pages 57-70
"Front-of-pack nutrition labelling: Testing effectiveness of different nutrition labelling formats front-of-pack in four European countries
Authors: Gerda I.J Feunekes, Ilse A. Gortemaker, Astrid A. Williams, Rene Lion and Marcelle van den Kommer