The findings have led researchers to call for more research into the effects of front-of-pack (FOP) labels before any move is made to make them compulsory – a step that has been considered in the UK, the USA and Australasia.
The researchers, from the University of Otago in New Zealand, studied the impact of existing nutrition labels – a ‘percentage daily intake’ label and a hybrid ‘traffic light’ label – on consumers’ intention to buy branded cereal products. They found that study participants did indeed take notice of nutritional labels, which significantly increased their intention to buy a product.
However, this increased purchase intention was not affected by the nutrition label’s size, type, or the product’s nutritional content.
The study’s authors called the result “a complete functional failure” of the FOP labels tested, both of which required significant cognitive processing to understand. Their results suggested that such processing did not happen when a consumer was buying cereal, they said.
“The outcome is a failure born of a highly destructive mismatch between the complex mechanics of the label systems themselves and the simple non-cognitive mechanisms via which they are actually processed by the consumers with whom they are supposed to be communicating,” they wrote.
All is not lost
Despite their concern that consumers did not fully consider the information presented on the FOP labels tested, the researchers suggested that FOP labels could be helpful if nutrition content had already been independently evaluated.
“The term ‘Organic’ and the ‘Heart Foundation Tick’ and ‘Smart Choices’ logo are all examples of fully evaluative cue systems that are currently used to express the nutritional status of the food products that carry them without the need for further cognitive consumer evaluation,” they wrote. “These marks, as long as they are calibrated to accurately reflect the nutritional status of the product to which they are affixed, may well offer a viable alternative avenue of development.”
Source: Public Health Nutrition
Vol. 18, Iss. 12, pp. 2126–2134 doi:10.1017/S1368980014002997
“The impact of front-of-pack nutrition labels on consumer product evaluation and choice: an experimental study”
Authors: Robert P Hamlin, Lisa S McNeill and Vanessa Moore