The research, published in Appetite, examines whether front-of-pack nutrition label formats influence the healthiness of consumers’ food choices using data from 1,000 German and Polish consumers. The international research team behind the study report that the type of front-of-pack nutrition labelling format had very little influence on consumers’ motivation to choose healthy foods.
"The study indicates that the implementation of nutrition labels per se, and interpretative elements (i.e., colour coding, text and percentage of GDAs) on them, does not influence the healthfulness of consumers’ choice when they choose according to their preference," explained the research team, led by Jessica Aschemann-Witzel from Aarhus University, Denmark.
The researchers instead revealed that the healthiness of a preferred choice depended on the setting: "That is, the country (Germany vs. Poland), the product category (savoury vs. sweet snack) and the choice set."
"From a public policy perspective, the low impact of nutrition labelling is sobering," said Aschemann-Witzel and her colleagues .
"Nevertheless, the study revealed new insights about the influence of the various label elements," they noted - adding that that when consumers are asked to make a healthful choice, then the presence and format of a nutrition label does have influence.
Indeed, when motivated to select a healthy product the team found that colour coding, text and percentage of GDAs had valuable influence on consumer choice.
The Danish-led research team explored the preferences and perceptions of 1,000 German and Polish consumers recruited in shopping centres. The team manipulated the format of nutrition labels - all of which referred to the content of calories and four negative nutrients - on selected savoury and sweet snack products.
"The different formats included the percentage of guideline daily amount, colour coding schemes, and text describing low, medium and high content of each nutrient," explained the researchers.
Participants were initially asked to chose from a set of ten products, before later being asked to chose from a set of 20 - that were, on average, healthier than the first choice set.
"The results showed that food choices were more healthful in the extended 20-product (vs. 10-product) choice set and that this effect is stronger than a random choice would produce," said the authors.
"We can only speculate about the exact reason why the extension of the choice set improved the healthfulness of the choices," they commented. "One mechanism may be that the focus of attention changed in response to an altering choice set of products."
Aschemann-Witzel and her team concluded that although the results of their study cannot 'finally resolve' the hotly debated question about whether and which front-of-pack nutrition label format performs best, it does provides some implications for industry and policy makers.
"Based on the results of our study, policy makers should focus on the healthfulness of the overall food assortment," they said. "Whether and to which degree front-of-pack nutrition labels support such strategies in real life remains to be shown."
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.07.004
"Effects of nutrition label format and product assortment on the healthfulness of food choice"
Authors: Jessica Aschemann-Witzel, Klaus G. Grunert, Hans van Trijp et al