Changes to food labelling policy gives fresh produce a chance for self-examination

Labelling nutrition information

Clear, simple, front-of-pack messaging remains important in helping consumers make healthy choices

At first glance, the EU’s European Food Information to Consumers regulation and mandatory nutrition labelling regulations do not hold much relevance for the fresh produce sector since most of the latest policies are concerned with meat or processed foods. However, as Produce Business UK finds out, the need for labels that help consumers make healthy choices, as well as the debate around the level of promotion and health claims displayed on labelling present food for thought for the produce industry too

While the purpose of labels on food is undoubtedly to give consumers information that helps inform their purchasing choice, labels can perform a host of other functions from food safety to brand communication. And with mandatory nutrition labelling on the horizon from 2016, the undoubted aim is to make it easier still for consumers to make healthy choices. But with a myriad of information on display, how can that be achieved?

Too much information?

Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, and also president of the European Heart Network, is full of examples of people who have changed their lifestyles as a result of looking at front-of-pack labelling introduced in the UK two years ago, but he does admit to some concerns.

“Are we really talking about an information overload?” he asks. “The overall impact of what we do can actually be very confusing for people […] it is really important that we, as actors within this system, take collective responsibility for providing information in a way in which people can understand, and enable and empower them to make those healthy decisions and healthy choices.”

Front-of-pack labelling remains vital, Gillespie believes. “Consumers’ decisions as they go about their shopping [are made in a] very short amount of time [when they] focus maybe on the front of the pack, let alone the back of the pack. What’s on front of the pack is really important for people because most people make their minds up very quickly and it’s important that the information we give them is clear.”

It’s all about education

But none of this information is of any use if consumers do not have the basic “framework” on which to “hang” it. Professor Monique Raats, director of the Food, Consumer Behaviour & Health Research Centre at the University of Surrey, has found in her research that the way consumers interpret and understand nutrition and health claims on packaging relates to their ‘causal model’.

Raats believes much of this causal model comes from what is talked about in the press as well as more formal education. So, looking ahead as less familiar ingredients are introduced or new health claims are made, she says where strong causal models exist we need to think about how people are going to be educated, and where will they get that information from.

Raats’ research also found that the presence of functional images – an image of a heart on labelling, for example – significantly increases the recall of health claims. “There is a real power in imagery that we need to think about,” she says.

Does it work?

Certainly Gillespie’s examples of life-changing consumer decisions based on front-of-pack labelling give an indication of just how far it can be said to influence purchasing decisions. This is an area that Cathy Capelin, strategic insight director for nutrition at analyst Kantar Worldpanel has been studying closely too.

Kantar works with a sample of 30,000 UK households, which scan all the food and drink they bring back into the home. The company also questions this panel on a range of issues, one of which is nutritional labelling – a topic that invokes responses from some 20,000 households.

“One in three households would agree or strongly agree with the statement ‘the nutritional labelling on food and drink has an impact on what I buy’,” says Capelin. “So we’ve got a third of households that are actually saying ‘yes, nutritional labelling is important to me,’ and actually one in 10 will strongly agree with that statement. There is a large group of people that nutritional labelling is very important to, but it’s not everybody.”

Kantar’s research has further found that it is mainly the AB social class, and, within that, the younger generation and young families that agree with those statements. And it is these same consumers that appear to be buying healthier baskets that contain fewer sugars, calories, saturates and sodium, as far as the purchase of Kantar’s panel indicates.

“But in terms of trying to understand the impact of front-of-pack labelling, and whether it changes people’s purchasing behaviour, it is very difficult,” admits Capelin. “The market is very complex and promotional activity is significant.”

According to Kantar, a staggering 38% of all the food and drink that is bought in the UK has some sort of price promotion attached to it; translating into 39% of our sugar intake and 42% of saturated fats.

“We know that has a huge influence on people’s purchasing activity. So while that level of promotion is out there it’s going to be very difficult […] when someone’s put some front-of-pack labelling on, to say that there’s been a difference. It tends to get lost in that overall impact of other marketing activity.”

The fresh produce approach

There are three key pointers the fresh produce trade can take away from these points of view:

  1. Any messaging must be clear and simple, while images can be used for extra reinforcement.

  2. Labellers must bear in mind the frame of reference consumers have, whether that’s in terms of heart health, the number of calories or the role that certain nutrients play in human health.

  3. It should be considered whether consumers need to be re-educated and if they do, how you can do that appropriately.

With such a huge percentage of our sugar and saturated fats intake coming from price-promoted foods, there is truly a lot of work to be done to get those shopping baskets healthier still, and topped up gradually with a bit more produce every time.

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