Irish study shows importance of food labelling to consumers

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 8th December 2009

Research from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has revealed that, while one in four consumers always read food labels when shopping for food, 27% said they rarely or never consult them.

Food labelling was considered informative by nearly three quarters of consumers surveyed, and the main reasons these consumers read food labels is to look for nutrient information, calorie content, or to determine if the food contains specific ingredients.

Consumers were asked to rate the importance of ten pieces of information legally required on food labels. The date of minimum durability (i.e. the use-by or best-before date) was rated the most important piece of labelling information, followed by the list of ingredients and the name of the food.

Eighty-seven per cent of consumers considered the nutrition table on a label to be very or fairly important, but most would prefer to see nutrient values stated per portion (e.g. per bowl), than per 100 g or 100 ml. Over 70% of consumers surveyed said they were very or fairly concerned about salt in food, so it is important that food labelling is presented in a way that allows consumers to identify lower salt options. Currently, the salt content of a food is declared as ‘sodium’, but the majority of consumers said that they would prefer to see a ‘salt’ value on the label instead, although labelling both would be acceptable.

On a voluntary basis, food manufacturers often highlight nutrition information by placing signpost labelling on the front of packs, usually following a Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) format – or occasionally a ‘Traffic Light’ format. When consumers were shown a Traffic Light label, two GDA labels and a label which combined both schemes; 53% opted for either of the two GDA labels, whereas 39% considered the traffic light label most informative. However, only 8% of consumers considered the combination label the most informative.

The survey also showed that:
• Over 80% of consumers want health advice regarding the consumption of alcohol labelled on alcoholic products
• 75% of consumers would like to see a date of minimum durability labelled on foods sold loose
• Country of origin labelling is important to consumers in Ireland, as nearly three quarters of those surveyed believe county of origin should be indicated on all foods – both pre-packaged foods and foods sold loose
• At least two thirds of consumers said they would be inclined to buy food products labelled with the nutrition claims: ‘low salt’, ‘low sugars’, ‘one of five a day’, ‘high fibre’, or ‘fat free’
• Consumers consider the voluntary allergen message ‘May contain…’ more informative than ‘Made in a plant that handles…’
• Less than half of consumers have seen percentages of certain ingredients written in the ingredients list; and a third of these consumers said that they do not use this information to influence their choice of purchase.
• Consumers found some elements of labels confusing, such as the use of non-standardised measurements for nutritional information and the use of scientific terms for ingredients or nutrients. Over half agreed that making the information easier to understand and using larger text size would make it easier to choose food products.

“The survey reveals that attitudes to food labelling in Ireland have changed since our last survey in 2002,” Professor Alan Reilly, Chief Executive of the FSAI stated. “The main reasons consumers now read food labelling is to look for nutritional and calorific information, whereas in 2002 the key reason to read a label was to check the best before date. This indicates that people are concerned about healthy eating and want to know more about the nutritional aspects of the food they are buying.”

“Overall, nearly three quarters of consumers confirm that food labels are informative, which is positive. The function of food labelling is to provide consumers with key information on the properties, ingredients, nature and characteristics of pre-packaged food to enable them to make informed food purchasing decisions. This survey highlights that consumers want information on food labels to be clear, but also indicates a need to educate consumers on the different aspects of food labelling to allow them to make more informed purchasing decisions.”