Consumer confusion over food labelling

March 25, 2014, 12:01 PM GMT+0

Government and food industry urged to step up consumer education around food labelling so customers can make better healthy eating choices.

Despite the introduction of a standardised traffic light food labelling system in 2013, consumers are still confused and are at risk of making poor choices around healthy eating. Although three quarters (76 per cent) of respondents claim to understand the traffic light food labelling system, the majority of consumers answered four out of five questions on the labelling system incorrectly.

These are the findings of a study commissioned by The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM). The research, carried out by YouGov and supported by The Marketing Trust, looks at consumer attitudes towards food labelling covering awareness, comprehension, association, expectations, purchase decision making and trust.

Three quarters, (77 per cent) of consumers believe that the responsibility to eat a healthy and balanced diet lies with themselves and do not want further government legislation. However, 70 per cent expect manufacturers and food and drink brands to do more to explain what is in the products they sell and 59 per cent say that retailers should provide clearer information to shoppers. Over half of people say current nutritional information is difficult to understand but would take more notice of the nutritional content of food if it was clearer.

Thomas Brown, Associate Director, Research and Insights, CIM comments: “Our research indicates that consumers don’t want a heavy-handed response from government in order to manage their diets. They do, however, expect better information from both brands and retailers in order to make informed purchasing decisions and better healthy eating choices.

“The traffic light system can be a useful tool for consumers, but our research shows it’s not sufficient as a standalone measure. We believe that the government needs to work in partnership with the food industry, rather than independently, to drive an education programme that helps consumers make more informed and confident purchasing decisions, and helps improve the effectiveness of existing regulation and information such as the traffic light system.”

Promising findings from the research include an increased awareness of healthy eating among consumers, with 58 per cent stating that they pay more attention to nutritional content than they used to. Nearly half also claimed that they regularly put products back on the shelf if nutritional content looked bad.

Sugar content ranked the most important factor for consumers in their purchase decisions, closely followed by calorie content and general ingredients, with fat content and salt ranking surprisingly fourth and fifth respectively.

The second strand of the study involved exploring the sentiment of manufacturers, retailers and brand owners around areas including corporate policies, responsible decision making, consumer education and attitudes to regulatory developments. Only 34 per cent of this group strongly feel that increasing regulations would better protect consumers. An overwhelming 85 per cent of industry representatives believe that healthy living and improved diets would be best achieved by investing in consumer education and information.

Louise Vacher, Consulting Director at YouGov added: "It's encouraging to see that there is an increase in consumer awareness and the desire to make healthier purchases. It's therefore crucial that consumers not only understand the traffic light system, but feel equipped to accurately interpret and apply this information, and this research suggests there is more work to be done.”

See full poll results