Are nutrition labelling schemes a marketing ploy? ‘FOPs no longer inform, but influence’

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages/gpointstudio
GettyImages/gpointstudio

Related tags: Nutrition, Nutrition labeling, Marketing, nutri-score

Typical marketing instruments – such as colour coding and scale – are being used to influence consumer purchasing behaviour, argues EDA board member Valentina Zanetti. Mars, amongst others, does not agree.

The European Commission is yet to reveal what front-of-pack (FOP) labelling scheme it plans to roll out by the end of 2022. It has confirmed that whatever format the nutrition label takes, it will be harmonised and mandatory.

The planned introduction of a such a scheme – examples include Nutri-Score, Traffic Light, NutrInform Battery, and Keyhole – has been welcomed by a good number of health experts, retailers, and food makers.

Others, however, argue that such simplified, colour-coded schemes serve as a marketing tool for industry. “FOPs currently on the market…no longer inform, but influence,” ​said Export Manager of cheese company Zanetti Spa and European Dairy Association (EDA) board member, Valentina Zanetti.

Nutrition label marketing tool is ‘unacceptable’

At a recent European Food Forum (EFF) event, Zanetti stressed she is not against FOP labelling. Indeed, a ‘very complete’ nutrition label already exists on Zanetti Spa’s products. “We accept, if necessary, to move [that label] to the front of the pack,” ​she told delegates.

nutriscore wwwebmeister
Nutri-Score employs colour-coding and scale. GettyImages/wwwebmeister

What the Export Manager does not accept, however, is for FOPs to become a marketing tool. Such a tool would be supported by ‘typical marketing instruments’ – such as colour-coding and scale – that influence consumer purchasing behaviours, she explained.

A number of nutrition labelling schemes on the market do employ colour-coding and scale. Nutri-Score, for example, ranks foods from the ‘healthiest’ to the ‘least healthy’ with a letter and colour code: from dark green (A) to dark red (F).

The UK Traffic Light scheme employs a combination of colour coding and nutritional information to show if a product is red (high), medium (amber) or low (green) in fat, saturated fat, salt and sugars.

The most important element of FOP? Attracting consumer attention

Not all share Zanetti’s view.  

Klaus Grunert, Professor and Director of MAPP at the University of Aarhus’ School of Business and Social Sciences, explained that if the objective is to achieve healthier choices, then catching the shopper’s eye is key.

Three major elements of a nutrition label exist, he explained. Firstly, consumers must notice, see, and read the label. Secondly, they must understand it. And thirdly, consumers must use it in their decision making, we were told.

While all three are valuable, Grunert suggested it is likely the first element – that of attracting consumer attention – is the most important.

“Most labels in the stores are ignored. We know that we can do a number of things: we know that the size, the consistency of the placement, the familiarity, and [having] the same label across all products…would help [encourage], in all likelihood, people paying attention to the label,” ​he told delegates.

It is also understood that label design and placement on packaging can help, Grunert suggested, adding that more guidelines for manufacturers on these two aspects would be welcomed.

Mars weighs in: Colour is key

nutrition labelling Goran13
GettyImages/Goran13

Confectionery giant Mars, Inc. is also a supporter of nutrition labelling schemes – and in particular, colourful schemes that stand out.

Noting that FOP labelling information should be part of broader efforts to curb obesity, Mars’ VP Public Affairs Europe, David Colman, told delegates the chosen scheme should tick a number of boxes.

“There are certain things we think a nutrition label should have or should be,” ​said Colman. Included in Mars’ criteria is that nutrition labelling should be ‘interpretive’.

It should also use colours: “I believe the evidence is there that colours is not only an incentive to see the label, but it also helps them interpret the information their receiving.”  

‘EU institutions should be an authority, not a market player’

For EDA board member Zanetti, however, using such ‘marketing instruments’ can influence purchase behaviour. This, she suggested, casts doubt as to the intention of the institutions backing the label’s implementation.

“If institutions support those [schemes] by making them mandatory, then institutions would cease to be the neutral conveyer of information and education, to [instead] become active players on the market.”

The EDA board member urged such institutions to protect consumers by enforcing fair and transparent labelling rules on producers and distributors. They must ‘educate’ consumers, she stressed, rather than influence their purchases.

“We cannot have a European institution as a commercial competitor with the added power of setting the rules. We hope they keep being an authority and not a market player.

“It is wrong to use FOPs as an instrument to direct consumers’ choices. The real and only tool for an informed choice is knowledge. It’s education.”

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