There has been considerable debate over which is the best system, as new legislation on food information is being debated between the European Parliament and the Council, since the publication of the proposal at the beginning of this year.
In the UK, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) favours the traffic light system, which is based on a nutrient profiling model and which uses red, orange and green colours to signal foods with high or low levels of undesirable nutrients like salt and saturated fat at a glance.
The Confederation of Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA), meanwhile, developed the GDA system that gives specific amounts of fat, salt and sugar in a product as a percentage of the advised consumption per day.
More than 50 manufacturers in the EU are now using GDAs. The proposal for the new food information legislation was favourable towards a GDA-like scheme, but left scope for national schemes, such as traffic lights, to be used in tandem.
The survey conducted by EUFIC (European Food Information Council) involved 2019 shoppers at three UK supermarkets – Asda, Sainsbury’s, and Tesco – each of which use a different system for front-of-pack labelling. The participants were incentivised, and the in-store interview was supplemented with a questionnaire to be completed in the home. In total, 921 completed questionnaires were returned.
It forms part of a study on how different schemes are used in real-life shopping situations in six EU countries; as well as the UK, shoppers label-reading habits are also under investigation in France, Germany, Sweden, Poland and Hungary.
The survey findings
The researchers reported that both GDAs and traffic labels have a high level of recognition amongst consumers, with 79 per cent of respondents saying they had heard of both schemes.
Ninety per cent said they had seen GDAs before, and 89 per cent recognized them as a maximum rather than a target to reach.
With the traffic lights, however, EUFIC said understanding “is characterized by some exaggeration of the meaning of the colours and a lack of understanding that the system is applied per 100 per cent.”
Seventy-three per cent of respondents wrongly thought that the red colour indicated avoidance, rather than that it is fine to eat the product occasionally or as a treat.
As for the hybrid scheme, less than 15 per cent of consumers said that colour coding and the high, medium and low interpretive elements were helpful in indicating how healthy the product was.
The amount of time that consumers spent looking at labels was seen to vary across product categories. The average time taken to make a food purchasing decision was 25 second, but shoppers took most time to make up their minds over ready meals, and least time over carbonated soft drinks.
A spokesperson for EUFIC told FoodNavigator.com that the parallel surveys in the other countries are in progress, and the results will be published at the beginning of November.
It was decided to press ahead with the UK results earlier because of the level of debate on food labelling in that country, and the interest of EUFIC stakeholders.
The UK results have already been shared with all members of the European Commission’s Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity, and published on EUFIC’s website. (EUFIC is part-funded by the European Commission, as well as some food companies.)
Although EUFIC is itself a non-lobbing organization, the spokesperson said the findings “could be” influential in informing the debate on the EU food information legislation.