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Consumer understanding – what the research shows

Outline of consumer studies that have given insight into this topic showing evidence that there is a general lack of understanding.
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© EIT Food

Consumers are increasingly interested in health and use diet to achieve desired health outcomes [1]. At the same time, people want transparency from food producers so they know what they’re eating [2].

Food labels are designed to help us make informed choices when we shop, but first we have to perceive the label, then form an understanding of it and finally evaluate it and use it to make our selection [3]. Let’s look firstly at how well we understand labels, and then how we use them.

1) How well do we understand labels?

  • Nutrition and health elements

A review of research studies into consumer understanding and use of nutrition labels demonstrated the challenges when it comes to getting the right message across [8]. More than half (59%) of consumers around the world say they have difficulties understanding nutrition information labels [1].

The ‘Guideline Daily Amount’ element of labels is quite well understood, especially in countries like the UK [3]. On the other hand, consumers’ understanding of label information on serving sizes is relatively poor [10].

Health claims are understood well [11, 12] but studies show that consumers have a hard time differentiating between ‘nutrition’ and ‘health’ claims. The first refers to particular nutritional properties of food that are objectively beneficial, whereas the second refers to statements that make a link between food and health (we’ll look at this in more detail in Week 2) [14].

Where labels are displayed makes a difference. Front of package (FOP) nutrition labels are shown to increase people’s ability to identify healthier options and to evaluate the nutritional quality of products [15, 16]. People generally prefer simple labels like logos but research shows that consumers may misunderstand them [6, 17]. FOP colour-coded systems and those that provide a summary indicator are most effective in helping consumers differentiate between foods that vary in healthiness [15]. When it comes to identifying foods that are high in the nutrients we need to limit in our diets, warning signs are effective [18].

  • Safety and quality elements

Many consumers are confused about the meaning of ‘best before’ as opposed to ‘use by’. Less than half of those consumers asked about the meaning of the ‘best before’ date gave the correct answer, and even fewer knew what the ‘use by’ date means [4, 21].

Other elements of labels also relate to food quality, such as the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) logo. Although respondents understood that these logos refer to food quality, when it came to being able to describe precisely what they mean, the majority of those asked could not give correct answers [22].

  • Sustainability elements

A large study on sustainability labelling, conducted in several countries in the EU, found that consumer awareness of the various logos was quite low but when shown a logo, such as fair trade or carbon footprint, and asked its meaning, many people could guess them correctly [19].

2) How well do we use labels to make choices?

  • Nutrition and health elements

In general, consumers are interested in food labels and, when asked, say that they use them and are reasonably aware of the existence of the various elements. However, this is not reflected in shopping behaviour [3, 23]. In a large study carried out in 2010 across several countries in the EU, consumers were observed at the point of purchase to discover how nutrition labels were used to make choices. Only one in six consumers looked at the nutrition information label before buying a product [3]. The nutrition declaration, reference intake (RI) indicators and the ingredients list were the main sections used [3].

Other studies have shown that although FOP nutrition and health claims increase the perception of healthiness of products, they make them seem less attractive [13] and even less tasty [16]. So, even if people use these labels effectively, they may not choose products carrying them because of their negative associations.

  • Safety and quality elements

The high level of consumer confusion around ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates has been linked with food waste and some estimates suggest that about 10% of total food waste in the EU is attributable to such misunderstandings [5]. The role of food quality labels, like the PDO logo, in consumers’ choices is generally small, but this does vary by product and country [22].

  • Sustainability elements

A study in 2014 indicated a low level of use of sustainability labels to make choices [19], although this may have increased over recent years due to growing public interest.

Studies show that, like nutrition labels, sustainability labels are more effective in guiding people’s choices when they are colour-coded and that traffic light colours make more of an impact than black and white [20].

Labels for labels’ sake

Overall, consumers perceive products that carry food labels like nutrition FOP labelling as healthier and such labels influence people’s product choices or willingness to pay [7, 16]. However, as the studies discussed here show, many consumers find them difficult to understand and use. That’s why we’ve developed this course, to help you improve your knowledge and understanding of food labels so that you can use them more easily to make choices about what you eat.


Which of the elements discussed here do you want this course to help you use more effectively when you shop? Please share your answers with us and with other learners in the comments section below.

© EIT Food
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Understanding Food Labels

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