Shoppers confused by 'traffic light' food labels, says study

Nutritional labels on food packaging are confusing to consumers and may be hindering attempts to promote healthy diets and reduce obesity, according to a new study from the University of Birmingham.

The report, based on the results of face-to-face interviews with shoppers, finds 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.

Dr Sheena Leek from the Department of Marketing at the University of Birmingham, who led the study, said: ‘The aim of FOP nutritional labelling is to help customers make healthy dietary choices as an aid to reducing obesity. 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?

‘Shoppers were 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 hampered 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.’

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% 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.

Dr Leek said: ‘This research has highlighted the elements of the FOP labelling format that cause confusion – something that may continue to occur with the Government’s new standardised traffic light system, which does not include interpretive text and replaces GDA with the potentially confusing reference intake.

‘The Government must focus on educating consumers on what constitutes a healthy diet to help them place the FOP information in context and work out how to balance the traffic light colours.

‘There is certainly room to improve the current system, thus enabling people to follow healthier diets and reducing the degree of obesity among the UK population.’

ENDS

For further information, a copy of the full study, or to arrange an interview with Dr Leek, please contact Stuart Gillespie in the University of Birmingham press office on +44 (0)121 414 9041. Out of hours, please call +44 (0)7789921165.

Notes to editors

The study ‘Consumer confusion and front of pack (FOP) nutritional labels’ is published in the Journal of Customer Behaviour. It is available to view online (journal subscription required).