‘A proliferation of nutrition labelling initiatives’ but no consensus on which work best

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock/steve vanhorn
©iStock/steve vanhorn
A “global proliferation” of nutrition labelling is underway but, according to the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), no consensus exists on which types of labels are most effective.

Nutritional labelling is seen as an important tool to guide consumers in their product choices and encourage people to adopt more balanced diets. With rising health care costs, improving diets at a population level is necessary to combat the spread of non-communicable diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

According to the EUFIC’s 2018 Global Update on Nutritional Labelling, public and private labelling initiatives are gaining steam.

Countries can broadly be divided into two main groups: those that have a mandatory requirement for nutritional labelling, like European Union Member States and the US, and those that have voluntary guidelines, including Switzerland and South Africa.

The EUFIC noted a regional split between the type of labels different countries opt for. In Asia-Pacific, North and Eastern Europe positive logos are proving increasingly popular. Some South American countries are more likely to opt for health warnings while traffic light labels are gaining ground in Western Europe.

However, while distinct approaches are being taken to nutritional labelling, Dr. Sophie Hieke, EUFIC Head of Consumer Science, told FoodNavigator that there is currently little agreement on which labels are most effective at promoting behavioral changes.

“There is still no agreement on which format is more effective at changing consumer behaviour. The wide variety of labels along with vast differences in study design and sample size for all the different studies make it difficult to definitively conclude which type of messaging may influence consumer choices to a greater extent,”​ she explained.

“Study results will vary depending on region, culture or even the amount of exposure of consumers to different types of labels. Has it become a habit to use such information or is it first-time exposure? It may also depend on the type of consumer how well these labels work or their socio-demographic differences. Lastly, it’s important to take into account what exactly a study has looked at (e.g. identifying a healthier product, purchase intention, actual choice or changes in consumers behaviour).”

Need for policy backing

EUFIC stressed policy decisions should be based on science. The key question is how appropriate and meaningful nutrition information can be provided on the food label so that motivated consumers can act on their desire to improve their diets, the organisation suggested.

“There is great interest among stakeholders and the research community in the potential of nutrition labelling to guide consumers in their product choices so as to enable them to adopt more balanced eating habits. In this respect, it is clear that what matters is the overall diet, not the consumption of an individual product,”​ the group noted.

In order for labelling schemes to legitimately communicate with consumers, government backing is needed, EUFIC continued.

“The EU’s adoption of a harmonised format for FOP labels and national-level schemes in the UK and France have made it clear that government backing is needed to support a scheme’s credibility, while at the same time raising the question of how such schemes might impact international trade.”

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