Europeans understand food labels, but taste remains their primary purchase driver

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 6th November 2008

A pan-European study by the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), presents interesting information for the food industry – with food labels found to be widely understood and recognised.

“While there are several nutrition labelling schemes across Europe, our findings show that people recognise them and generally know how to use them to make informed nutrition choices,” commented Professor Klaus Grunert of the University of Aarhus, Denmark, who conducted the study for EUFIC. “Nutrition labelling should be seen as a key element in a rounded public health strategy.”

The study, which questioned some 17,300 people in France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Sweden and the UK – both in supermarkets and at home, found that, on average, only 18% of Europeans (ranges from 27% in UK to 9% in France) regularly look for nutrition information on food packaging in-store.

Independent market research agencies carried out the field work in each country. Results showed that the better established forms of nutrition information on labels such as the Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) scheme, was widely recognised and understood by shoppers.

Real life in-store behaviour
Among those looking for nutrition information, the Nutrition Table is the most frequently mentioned source of nutrition information in Germany, Sweden, Hungary and Poland, while more than 53% of shoppers in the UK and 44% in France looked for nutrition information in the GDA labelling system. In countries where food additives were identified as important information (Hungary, France and Poland), the ingredients table was also cited.

Colour-coded schemes such as traffic lights also met with high levels of awareness but were open to some misinterpretation as people tended to exaggerate the meaning of the colour-coded levels, as 73% of people believing that a ‘red’ light indicated they should avoid eating a product. The traffic light system is not seen in Australia, but some health and consumer groups are calling for its introduction.

Sweden, which uses a keyhole logo to identify the healthier product in a food category, had the highest awareness of any labelling system at 95%. Subjective and actual understanding of the system was also the highest, usage was lower. Notably, 61% of shoppers said they would look for other information even if the keyhole logo was present.

Consumers were fairly confident that they understood the labelling systems. This was well-founded, because across all countries, at least half could correctly solve a number of tasks involving interpretation of GDA and other nutrition information on labels.

A new finding was that people spend an average of 30 seconds selecting a product. By comparison to previous studies, this is substantially more time than previously observed. The UK was lowest at 25 seconds per product, and Hungary the highest with a full 47 seconds.Food labels

Shoppers are most likely to look for nutrition information when buying yogurts, breakfast cereals and ready meals. Convenience and health clearly played a role in purchasing decisions, while taste was the most important deciding factor across all categories in most countries.

“I am surprised that the average European consumer spends 30 seconds selecting a food product,” Professor Grunert reported. “However, looking for nutrition information is not top of mind for most consumers.”

Labelling of key nutrients
Calorie content was the information most frequently sought by shoppers in four out of the six markets. However, UK consumers looked for fat content before calories, whilst Swedish consumers looked equally for sugar and fat followed by calories. Fat was among the top three in all countries as was sugar, whereas salt was in the top 5 only for Germany and the UK. Other information sought included food additives, vitamins and fibre.

When given a realistic choice set of three products within the same category, including all package information, more than 70% can correctly identify the most healthy product in France, Germany, and the UK, and about 50% in Hungary, Poland and Sweden. These figures do not seem to be influenced by which labelling scheme is adopted on the packaging. Calories and fat levels drove healthier choices, but salt and saturated fat levels were largely ignored. Younger consumers were better at finding the right answers, and people with more nutrition knowledge gave more correct answers.

Higher socio-economic status positively impacted upon looking for nutrition information and the level of nutrition knowledge.

Getting it right and getting it wrong – over & under estimations
When probed as to the fat, sugar or salt content of foods, the majority of respondents were able to answer correctly. When they got the answer wrong, respondents consistently over-exaggerated actual levels . Similarly, all countries over-estimated the calorie content of alcoholic drinks.

Across Europe, people tended to significantly underestimate the calories (energy) expended by everyday activities, suggesting a need for greater education of consumers. Just 28% of Swedish and 11% of Polish consumers accurately stated the number of calories expended in a brisk walk.

46% or less answered correctly when asked how many calories the average adult needs per day. Women fared slightly better than men, with the lowest scores being recorded among French men – just 22% knew how many calories they should consume in one day, and Hungarian women – just 29% answered correctly. Most Europeans knew that men need more calories than women and that seniors need fewer calories, but worryingly over a third of respondents, think that children need more calories than an adult man, raising public health questions about portion sizes and over-feeding in relation to childhood obesity.

Broader nutrition messages are being understood but still confusion about fats
As well as probing the use and understanding of labelling, the surveys questioned peoples’ general levels of nutrition knowledge. More than 95% knew they should increase their fruit and vegetable consumption, over 73% answered correctly about eating more wholegrain (except 49% France), and over 65% about fibre.

Knowledge of consuming more Omega 3 fatty acids ranged from 47% (Poland) to 88% (Sweden). However, mono-unsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats seem less understood, with under half of all respondents correctly thinking they should consume more. Over 60% state you should eat less or try to avoid trans fat (TFA), and 68% for saturated fat.

The findings will be officially announced at the First European Food Congress in Slovenia on 8 November.