In a study involving over 2000 participants in four different countries – the UK, Germany, Turkey and Poland – researchers compared three front-of-pack (FOP) labelling systems and how they influenced the perceived healthiness of a product.
Contrary to their expectations, the researchers found little difference in the efficacy of the different systems compared with a basic label, although the presence of any form of nutrition labelling did lead to slight improvements in subjective understanding of healthiness.
The FOP systems under study were the traffic light system, guideline daily amounts, traffic lights and guideline daily amounts together, and a basic label which contained numerical nutritional information alone for comparison purposes.
The scientists added each label to three different food categories (pizza, biscuits and yoghurt) which contained three further sub-categories (high health, medium health and low health) and two different portion sizes. Consumers were then asked to rate the healthiness of the product they were shown.
Overall, consumers tended to underestimate the healthiness of pizza and yoghurts while they overestimated the healthiness of biscuits. However this was slightly reduced with the presence of the FOP labels - a promising outcome, said the researchers.
Co-author Monique Raats told FoodNavigator: "This study shows that there is value in having nutritional info there."
However she added that the results were from lab conditions where participants were shown an image on a computer screen and asked to make a choice without real-life constraints such as time, price or packaging.
Does it translate to the real world?
Overall there was a lack of supporting evidence to suggest that the provision of FOP labels led to better food choices in real-world situations - although one positive spin-off of FOP labelling in itself was the incentive towards industry reformulation, the researchers concluded.
“Perhaps with hindsight policymakers and the health community in general have been somewhat naive to expect that simply providing nutritional information in the form of FOP labelling alone would result in healthier food choices,” said the study.
“Although FOP labels have the potential to facilitate healthier choices, in reality they can only do so when the motivation and intention to shop more healthily has been established.”
"If we are to achieve one single, effective FOP labelling system, future research should perhaps focus on developing a greater understanding of the psychological and contextual factors which impact the motivation and opportunity for people to use the various FOP labels in real-world shopping settings," the study added.
They pointed to one study which showed an uptake in healthier food choices following the introduction of FOP labelling in cafeteria – but this was accompanied by signage at the point of purchase, a dietitian on hand to answer consumers’ questions and placing the FOP-labelled products at eye level.
Raats said that the team of researchers from the Food Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre in Surrey were now looking at whether an understanding of nutritional value affected shopping choices.
"We will teach people how to read the [FOP label] in different ways - one in-depth and the other not - and then see what impact that has on their purchasing choices."
The study said that the UK FOP labels are fairly well-established with a prevalence rate of around 63%, while in Turkey they sit at around 2%.
Source: British Journal of Nutrition
First published online 21 April 2015, doi:10.1017/S0007114515000264
“Guiding healthier food choice: systematic comparison of four front-of-pack labelling systems and their effect on judgements of product healthiness”
Authors: C. Hodgkins, M. Raats et al.