Consumer use and understanding at heart of labelling debate

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition, Coca-cola

As food and beverage products have taken Guidance Daily Amount (GDA) labelling around Europe, awareness and understanding has been increasing, according to Coca-Cola. But debate over the best format for EU-wide labelling continues.

At the 4th annual European Nutrition and Lifestyle conference in Brussels this week, a high level panel debate sought to progress discussions on the new labelling legislation for the EU.

The process of devising a new system for front-of-pack labelling across the whole of the EU began four years ago. It has been the subject of fierce debate, with different stakeholders and countries advocating their own preferred approaches.

Joan Prats, corporate responsibility director health and wellness for Coca-Cola Europe, was on the panel. He told that the discussion has moved on from the early days, and is now based on rationale rather than emotion.

He sees it as inevitable that a GDA-like format will be adopted. Certainly the food industry has been proactive in rolling out the scheme, which gives calories, sugar, salt, fat and saturated fat as a percentage of recommended maximums for an adult female. The 2008 food labelling regulation proposal, too, envisaged a GDA-like scheme.

The traffic light scheme, which gives a red, orange or green ranking for saturated fat, sugar and salt content in food, is no longer in the running, he believes. Such a scheme uses a common measure of content per 100g/ml to compare content between foods. Coca-Cola, however, prefers to put per-serving information on the front of pack. Information per 100g/ml would remain in the nutritional panel on the back.

But Sue Davies, chief policy advisor for consumer group Which?, who was also on the panel, does not think colours should be ruled out. She told that the emphasis should be on what works best for consumers.

“Test have shown that when you have colour-coding, it works best for more consumers,”​ she said. Some retailers, notably Asda in the UK, have combined colours with GDAs.

While Sommer reportedly put the emphasis on a system that would be understood by consumers of average health and ability, Davies said a combination scheme would offer different levels of engagement and would be more inclusive.

People in a hurry could see at a glance whether a food bears red, orange or green ratings, but if they had more time or wanted more details they could look at the percentages.

Davies dismissed criticisms that a colour-coded scheme is too simplistic and would lead people to eat only green foods, and become undernourished as a result, as unhelpful. She put the emphasis on awareness, choice and balance.

GDAs in Europe

Prats presented data gathered by Coca Cola on the depth of understanding of GDA labels in Europe, and how they are used to inform purchasing and consumption decisions.

He said the evidence is based on “deep consumer research”​. Between 2005 and 2006 Coca-Cola conducted qualitative and quantitive research in the 10 European markets where it sells two thirds of its volume. This research covered both the purchaser in a household, and the person receiving the products purchased, and included issues such as what consumers understand to be a portion.

The real test, however, is when you put the product in the market, he said. Since 2006, Coca-Cola has been tracking key performance indicators on GDAs: Whether people have heard of GDAs and recognise the labels; whether they have read the labels; whether they have understood the labels; and whether the nutritional information has determined what they buy or drink.

It has found a steady increase in these indicators over time. For instance, in Poland usage rose from 21 per cent in 2007 to 25 per cent in 2008 to 39 per cent in 2009. Over the same three years understanding rose from 51 to 54 to 79 per cent, and awareness rose from 68 to 76 to 84 per cent.

However although it seems much progress has been made in educating people about GDAs, Prats said: “Labels alone should not bear responsibility for reversing obesity trends.”

The whole debate cannot be solved in nutritional information, he said, but it is multidisciplinary and is a complex transaction of calories in and calories out.

Related topics: Policy

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