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Consumers lack motivation and attention to make healthy choices, finds research

By Nathan Gray, 30-Nov-2011

Related topics: Science

A lack of motivation and attention from consumers prevents nutrition information labels from positively impacting food choices, say researchers.

The research findings, reported as part of the final results from the EU Food Labelling to Advance Better Education for Life (FLABEL) project, aim to provide guidelines for research, industry and policy-makers in Europe.

The researchers said that whilst nutrition labelling may provide a quick guide to inform consumers on the nutritional value of food products, the use and actual effects on shopping basket composition “have been largely unknown.”

“The FLABEL research shows the most promising option for increasing consumers’ attention to, and use of, nutrition information on food labels, is to provide information on key nutrients and energy on the front of the pack, in a consistent way,” said FLABEL scientific advisor, professor Klaus Grunert, of Aarhus University in Denmark.

“Complementing this information with a health logo can also increase attention to, and use of, the information, especially when the consumer is under time pressure,” he added.

The Danish researcher added that the use of colour coding – such as the use of traffic light labeling – can increase attention and use in certain situations, “although the effects .. are not strong,” he said.

The researchers added that the different formats of labels and logo's already in place - such as the use of nutrition tables, traffic light scheme, guideline daily amounts (GDA), and various health logos - may stimulate different response in consumers.

Research project

The project carried out an EU-wide nutrition labelling audit in 84 retail stores. The audit covered more than 37,000 products in five categories; sweet biscuits, breakfast cereals, chilled pre-packed ready meals, carbonated soft drinks, and yoghurts.

The researchers found that 85% of all products carried nutrition information on the back of the pack, whilst 48% carried information on the front of the pack.

The most widespread back of pack format were reported to be tabular or linear listing of calorific value and nutrient composition (84%), while nutrition claims and GDA were the most prevalent forms of front of pack nutrition information (both at 25%).

Grunert and his team explained that when information was provided on key nutrients – such as fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt – and energy, most consumers were able to correctly rank products according to healthiness.

They found that additional information, including health logos, GDA, or traffic lights, only marginally improved accuracy.

Attention and motivation

The team reported that a major issue affecting the impact of nutrition labels on actual food purchases made by consumers was lack of attention to the nutrition information.

The project found that food packages held consumers’ visual attention for very short periods, with the average attention to elements of nutrition labels being between 25 and 100 milliseconds – as measured by sophisticated eye-tracking equipment.

Motivation was a major factor affecting the impact of nutrition labels on the choices made by consumer, said Grunert.

“When prompted, consumers were able to identify which products were healthier, but they did not use this information to choose which product they prefer,” he said.

“A lack of consumer motivation, therefore, is one factor standing in the way of healthy food choices resulting from nutrition labelling.”