LABELS AND CONSUMERS

The European Commission hopes to adopt a harmonized Front-of-Package Label (FoPL) before the end of 2022, with the goal of improving citizens’ diets by encouraging consumption of healthy foods and beverages.

At the moment, there are several FoP labels circulating in European markets, with two macro-categories of design: “summary labels”, like France’s Nutriscore or UK’s Multiple Traffic Light scheme, and “nutrient-specific labels”, including Italy’s Nutrinform Battery. While the former type uses algorithms to turn quantitative information into a qualitative judgement of a product’s healthiness, nutrient-specific labels aim to present objective nutritional values in a more transparent and easily understandable way.

There has been no shortage of debate around the fairness and scientific validity of FoPLs in recent times, but the ultimate goal of FoPLs is not so much the categorization of product as the effective interpretation and usage by consumers. What then can be said about consumers’ preference and trust in different labelling options?

OBJECTIVE VS SUBJECTIVE UNDERSTANDING

For a FoPL to be effective, it has to be well understood by the consumer. Understanding does not only require interpreting correctly the level of healthiness that the label tries to communicate (objective understanding), but also the way that such information is used by consumers in formulating their opinions and purchasing decisions (subjective understanding). Since FoPLs seek to change consumer behavior, it can be argued that the subjective understanding is the most relevant in assessing their effectiveness.

Because they aim to convey information as quickly and easily as possible, summary labels intuitively perform better in objective understanding, as confirmed by research. But that is not the case for subjective understanding. Two studies by Mazzù et al. (2020, 2021) analyzed the level of subjective understanding of Nutriscore and Nutrinform Battery among consumers from seven European countries (France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Spain) and found that nutrient-specific labels, and specifically Nutrinform Battery, performed better than summary or interpretative schemes.

To be specific, the two studies measured labels’ level of comprehensibility of the design, their perceived helpfulness while shopping, their complexity, and their overall liking to assess whether information was being processed by consumers in a relevant and effective way. Nutrinform scored higher in every country and in every aspect. The only exception: French consumers liked Nutriscore marginally better, which can be readily explained by their familiarity with the scheme that has been in circulation in French supermarkets for a few years.

MISTRUST AND OTHER COLLATERAL EFFECTS

Consumers may like and understand the design of a label, but do they trust it to meet their dietary needs and wishes? This can vary greatly on a person-to-person basis, but research shows that many consumers feel wary of summary labels that dictate ‘healthfulness’ without displaying nutritional information (Grunert and Wills, 2007; Hodgkins et al., 2012). Consumers do not like to feel as if what should be their decision has been made for them, and when they are presented with an overall qualitative assessment they would like know the information that led to it. In this regard, Nutriscore performed more poorly than other more informative labels in several studies (Egnell et al. 2018, Fialon et al. 2020).

Indeed, labelling can have unintended collateral effects on consumer behavior: it can create resistance in consumers who feel like they are being forced to make choices they do not want, or it can induce over-reliance on labels, and therefore the over-consumption of foods labelled as healthy. On the other hand, if a product traditionally considered unhealthy receives a mark of nutritiousness, or vice versa, it can cause a loss of trust by the consumer. For example Nutriscore, whose algorithm places products on a scale from a healthy A to an unhealthy E, awards a B to diet sodas and a D to ham and cheeses.

Avoiding pushback and mistrust is fundamental if the end goal of improving citizens’ diets and health is to be achieved. In order to do so, research has shown that informative, descriptive and transparent labels are better received by consumers and therefore more effective. Labels that aim to educate, stimulate critical thinking and understanding of individual needs, seem to have a better chance at nudging consumers toward a more sustainable and healthy diet.

La credibilità è la nostra forza. La nostra visione al vostro servizio.

Pietro Paganini
Presidente, Competere
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