London, July 6: Nutritional labels on food packaging are confusing consumers and may be hindering attempts to promote healthy diets and reduce obesity, according to a new study.
Researchers found that while most people check front-of-pack (FOP) labels and recognise their importance, the 'traffic light' system used by many retailers is ambiguous to consumers, who also suffer from 'information overload' and a lack of contextual knowledge.
Traffic-light labels use red, amber and green signals to show consumers, at-a-glance, whether a product is high, medium or low in fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.
To make healthier food choices, consumers should choose more products with green or amber lights than red. "The aim of FOP nutritional labelling is to help customers make healthy dietary choices as an aid to reducing obesity," said Dr Sheena Leek from the Department of Marketing at the University of Birmingham, who led the study.
"We found that the range of labels used by retailers and manufacturers can be confusing to customers for a number of reasons. "The number of individual pieces of information on a product such as fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories, as well as percentage of guideline daily amount (GDA), grams per serving and a related colour scheme can cause overload confusion."
"Our research found that customers try to get round this by focusing on one or two elements - for example, calories and fat. "We found that the traffic light system in particular can be confusing. Should red labels be avoided altogether? Is a product with two reds and three greens healthier than a product with five oranges?" Leek said.
Leek said that shoppers are also confused by technical complexities such as the difference between fat and saturated fat, while a lack of contextual knowledge about what constitutes a healthy diet hampers some customers' decision making.
"People are in a hurry when they do their shopping, spending in general no more than 10 seconds scanning nutritional labels. We need to make things easier for them," Leek said.
The study involved face-to-face interviews with 30 shoppers of varying demographics and was based around the comparison of three ready meal lasagne featuring a range of FOP labels.
In one test, 40 per cent of respondents failed to identify the healthier product when two traffic light systems - circular and horizontal - were compared, while a quarter struggled to pick out the healthiest ready meal when it had the circular label. Overall, one in seven of the decisions taken by respondents were incorrect. The study is published in the Journal of Customer Behaviour.