Food labelling has a significant impact on consumer decision-making

By Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Tom Werner
Image: Getty/Tom Werner

Related tags: Nutrition facts, NutriScore, Farm-to-fork, Food labelling, European commission, FOP, Health claims, front-of-pack labeling, Nutrition labelling

As both the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and Safe Food Advocacy Europe release reports detailing how the food industry conveys information, calls for change emerge.

In September 2022, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), which acts as the Commission’s science and knowledge service, published the results of four scientific studies exploring how food industry players are currently communicating food information to consumers.

The results provide guidance on various areas within food information, including front-of-pack nutrition labelling, digital communication and origin labelling. Following the scientific studies, the JRC will use these results to submit a proposal to revise the European Union’s (EU) rules on the food information consumers receive as part of the ‘Farm-to-Fork’ Strategy and Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan​.

Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE) also released a report​ entitled (Mis)understanding Nutriscore: Analysis of the algorithm’s shortcomings in September 2022. In announcing the publication of its report, SAFE revealed that the Nutriscore Scientific Committee had revised the Nutriscore algorithm for various categories, including vegetable oils. However, despite this change, SAFE relays that the Committee has failed to ensure informed choices towards healthier products are available to consumers.

Nutriscore is an international nutritional labelling system that assigns nutritional scores to food products based on a five-colour category approach that grades products from A, which indicates those products that are most favourable to consumers, to E, which details those that are least favourable.

Consumers want clarity to gain confidence

Today’s consumers are calling for greater transparency on labels. Food information needs to provide shoppers with information on whether a food product is too calorific or high in sugar, sodium, or fat, and also ensure that there are no chemical additives or other harmful substances in it, a spokesperson at Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE) says. Consumers also want to understand whether products contain nutrients that are beneficial to their health.

Labels, therefore, need to be clear, comprehensive, simple and contain consistent information. “Consumers may not be able to make informed choices if, for example, the rating rules for a certain type of product differ from the rating rules for a different product, as is the case with Nutriscore between foods for which the rating is calculated ‘as sold’ and those for which it is calculated ‘as prepared’,”​ says SAFE’s spokesperson.

In addition, food labelling needs to display truthful information on the nutritional values of the food concerning the portion provided. “The 100-gramme measure is an industrial standard, which is inappropriate for consumers,”​ SAFE states.

Health concerns prompt calls for change

Several factors drive calls for improvements to the information food manufacturers provide. Dysmetabolic diseases, chronic diseases and obesity are a problem for modern society, SAFE says.

Unhealthy diets, characterised by an intake of ultra-processed food as well as food products with high fat, caloric and sugar content, and lack of regular physical activity are associated with chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus type 2, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer, SAFE adds.

“To be able to adopt a healthier eating style, consumers must be empowered to make informed consumption choices, and this requires clear and understandable information on food packaging, as well as making sure that health messages on food products are scientifically justified,”​ SAFE’s spokesperson continues.

Front-of-pack labelling recommendations

The JRC conducted a study on front-of-pack nutrition labelling schemes, releasing a report ​detailing its findings and providing an evidence update.

Consumers see front-of-pack nutrition labels as a quick and easy way to acquire nutrition information when making purchase decisions, the JRC study found. In addition, less complex labels require less attention and time for consumers to process the information.

The study also found that consumers prefer simple, colourful and evaluative summaries on front-of-pack food labels, which are easier to understand than more complex, non-evaluative, monochrome labels.

“Front-of-pack nutrition labels can guide consumers towards healthier diets,”​ adds the Commission’s JRC. “Front-of-pack nutrition labelling seems to provide incentives to food businesses to improve the nutritional quality of their products, such as by reducing added salt or sugars,” ​the Commission’s JRC adds.

The role of the digital labelling environment

Digital labelling garners more attention from consumers and the broader food industry as it provides an alternative source of information to traditional physical food packaging.

In examining the role digital labelling has in today’s food information space, the JRC released its literature review​ on means of food information provision other than packaging labels.

The JRC made several findings. Firstly, the ways the food industry provides direct access to food information in the marketplace, such as menu labels, shelf labels and point-of-sale signs, can be effective at influencing consumers towards healthy behaviours when compared to online means that require external tools to access the information, such as QR codes or website links. Additionally, if the information is not provided on the food packaging, food information should be directly visible in the marketplace to influence consumers, the JRC says.

A greater understanding of food information in the digital sphere is required to ensure it meets consumer needs and expectations. “There is a need for more research comparing the provision of food information through labels and digital means,”​ says the Commission’s JRC.

Revising Nutriscore

“SAFE has always had concerns about the calculation method used by Nutriscore to convey nutritional information,” ​says the non-profit organisation’s spokesperson, commenting on what prompted the Nutriscore Scientific Committee to revise its algorithm. “We are reassured that the proponents of the method themselves agree with us, having changed the algorithm,” ​adds SAFE.

The Nutriscore algorithm was changed, SAFE states, to fill in some gaps and fix some inconsistencies. The purpose of these modifications is to better differentiate products within homogeneous categories by considering the presence of saturated fat, sugar and salt.

Following this revision, some product categories’ scores will now be changed, “in some cases for better, in other cases for worse”​, says SAFE.

However, SAFE does not believe these changes go far enough. “We saw that these changes are not sufficient, and the algorithm revision fails in fully addressing existing problems,”​ SAFE shares. For instance, in the category of vegetable oils, there is no adequate differentiation between products with different percentages of monounsaturated fats and valuable nutrients, such as vitamins.

F​urther action is needed

Focus and questions remain on how the food industry provides information to consumers on food products in a clear, consistent and comprehensive way. For example, SAFE urges additional amendments to be made to Nutriscore. The non-profit organisation says that its analysis highlighted several aspects which require action to avoid misleading consumers.

“First of all, the level of food processing should be taken into consideration because several authoritative studies link the consumption of ultra-processed foods and the increased risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality,”​ says SAFE.

The organisation compared the results of the Nutriscore with those of other labelling systems that assess the level of food processing. It found that the results of the Nutriscore were often more favourable than those of the other systems, SAFE reports. Similar results also emerged when comparing it with systems that evaluate calorie intake and the presence of sodium and sugar more severely, it reveals.

Furthermore, SAFE states that Nutriscore should negatively evaluate the presence of chemical additives and endocrine disruptors, which it does not currently take into account. In addition, it asks for the system to positively assess the presence of beneficial nutrients such as unsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals and polyphenolomega-3 fatty acids, which it highlights are also currently disregarded.

The calculation of the nutritive value should also be made based on the food’s portion, which SAFE emphasises is already required by the Food Information to Consumers (FIC) Regulation in Article 32(5)​, rather than the basis of the 100 gramme or millilitre measurement. The latter often does not correspond to the amount of food consumed, SAFE shares.

Finally, SAFE states that there are rules for using the Nutriscore system unknown to the consumer. “The trick of calculating the score on an arbitrary ‘as sold’ or ‘as to be prepared’ basis is an example,”​ says SAFE. “Action should also be taken on this point because the system must be easily understandable and not convey misinformation, especially to weak consumer groups and children,”​ SAFE’s spokesperson adds.

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