EU launches major food labelling research program to enhance understanding of consumer behaviour

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 27th November 2008

A 3-year European Union project is set to provide state-of-the-art science on nutrition labels and consumer behaviour as well as best practice guidelines for future research, industry and policy-makers.

The first EU-funded research programme on nutrition labelling, FLABEL (Food Labelling to Advance Better Education for Life), was officially launched this week.

The issue
In response to the prevalence of diet-related diseases, governments and food companies increasingly promote nutrition information on food labels to help the consumer make healthy, informed food choices. Nutrition labelling may be a quick guide to inform consumers about the nutrition content of different products, yet current use and actual effects on shopping basket composition remain largely unknown.

supermarket shopping

Additionally, the different formats already in place (Nutrition table, Traffic Light scheme, Guideline Daily Amounts/Intake (GDA/I), Health Logos etc.) may stimulate different behaviours. And debate continues to rage amongst different stakeholders as to the best scheme to use.

To thoroughly address the potential of food labelling as a useful source of nutrition information, FLABEL will fully examine the aspects that lead from label availability to effects on dietary intake.

The research will go beyond the recent European study by EUFIC (European Food Information Council), which discovered that established formats, such as the Guideline Daily Amount, were widely recognised and understood by shoppers.

The consortium
Comprised of 12 partners from 8 countries, ranging from academic experts, retailers, SME-representatives to not-for-profit organisations, the FLABEL research consortium is well placed to provide key insights on the role that nutrition information on food labels plays.

The research
FLABEL has two key research objectives:

1. To determine how nutrition information on food labels can affect dietary choices, consumer habits and food-related health issues by researching both the label and other factors/influences.
2. To provide the scientific basis on use of nutrition information on food labels, including scientific principles for assessing the impact of different food labelling schemes, to be shared with the EU institutions, the food industry, especially SMEs, and other stakeholders.

The outcomes
Amongst the many research findings, the consortium plans to achieve the following:

* An EU-wide map of nutrition information on food labels, showing to what extent nutrition labelling is currently available in all EU countries.
* Knowledge on: how consumers actually become aware of and read the food labels; which labels are most appealing and informative and; how to best strike a balance between simple and complete nutrition information, facilitating an informed choice.
* Information on actual nutrition label use in the “real world”. This will be based on in-store observations and retail scanner data, leading to insights into how nutrition labels may shape behaviour and affect consumption patterns.
* Evidence on how consumers form opinions about the healthiness of products, and how the nutrition label information interacts with other information in this process, including media, advertising and school education.
* Evidence on how nutrition labels can be used to positively influence children’s dietary intake, based on the role nutrition information on food labels plays in food decision-making in families with children.
* Research-based best practice proposal for nutrition labelling, tested in a real-world store environment.
* Set of best practice methods for assessing the impact of nutrition labelling on consumer’s product choice.

The in-depth study is anticipated to be complete by mid-late 2011 and could lead the way in establishing a binding European standard for food labelling. The twelve partners in the study have been chosen to represent a wide range of stakeholders and include seven University research teams, two retailers (Tesco and Euro Coop), the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises and the Confederation of Family Organisations in the European Union. It will be coordinated by EUFIC.