European Food Information Council (EUFIC) director general Josephine Wills presented delegates at last week's CIAA conference with a thought-provoking review of research on consumer response to nutrition information on food labels in Europe from 2003 to 2006.
Although nutrition labelling has been a major instrument for providing consumers with information to help them make healthy, nutritionally appropriate choices, she said that there were indications that this information is often misunderstood.
And given the link between diet and health, she said that EUFIC wanted to accurately determine the role that nutrition labelling currently plays in influencing consumers purchasing behaviour.
EUFIC therefore developed a methodology for analysing the results of research on consumer responses to nutrition information on packages conducted in EU15 for the past three years.
The results make for interesting reading - and also suggest future research needs.
"Consumers appear to be aware of the link between health and nutrition," said Wills. "But this is not their prime interest with food."
Nonetheless, she found that there is a widespread interest for nutrition information on food packages. However, the degree of interest differs between consumers and varies across situations and products.
For example, this interest is mostly concentrated in processed food, and women tend to have a higher interest than men. There also appears to be a European north / south divide, with the south less interested in nutrition labelling.
Secondly, while consumers like the idea of simplified front-of-pack information, they differ in their liking for the various formats. These include health logos, traffic lights, GDA (Guideline Daily Amount) based systems and energy labels.
"Simplified labels are generally liked, though opinions differ between consumers," said Wills. "The degree of liking is determined by three dimensions simplification, complete information and perception of coerciveness."
In other words, consumers want easy to read labelling that doesn't leave anything out, and doesnt make them feel pressurised into buying or not buying something. Simple traffic lights and health logos were less liked. because they lack complete information and / or are too pushy.
"For example, many consumers like colour coding, but some regard reds and greens on food products as too coercive," said Wills.
But what really struck home was the fact that there is still virtually no insight into how labelling information is, or will be, used in a real world shopping situation, and how it will affect consumers dietary patterns.
"We still have very little understanding into the cultural use of labelling," said Wills. "And very little is known about the long term indirect effects of labelling."
Understanding on-pack nutrition information in isolation is very different from understanding what this information means in the context of a weekly shopping excursion, she said. Addressing this last point should therefore be a key priority of future research.
EUFIC's study of European consumer research on nutrition labelling on food was conducted by Professor Klaus Grunert of Aarhus School of Business, Denmark. The review compiled consumer opinions from 58 different European studies carried out since 2003, sourced from industry, academia, retailers, non-governmental organisations, consumer groups and national governments.
The presentation, at CIAA's congress in Brussels last week, touched on a number of key themes. There was almost unanimous acceptance among CIAA members at the event that the food industry had a responsibility to the health and wellbeing of consumers, but that the sector should be trusted more to act responsibly.
Most speakers also talked about how Europe's food and drink industry is still wrapped in red tape that hinders innovation and hurts Europe's competitiveness, and how self-regulation is the best means of industry governance.