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Food labelling is 'confusing' and redundant without education

By Nicola Cottam , 02-Apr-2014

Food labelling is 'confusing' and redundant without education

Consumers are baffled by ambiguous messages about healthy eating and need help to unravel the labelling conundrum, warns the UK Chartered Institute of Marketing.

Food labelling in the UK is inadequate and confusing, according to a study commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM).

The research, carried out by YouGov and supported by The Marketing Trust, examined consumer and industry attitudes towards food labelling, including awareness, comprehension, association, expectations, purchase decision-making and trust.

It showed that while three-quarters of consumers said they understood the traffic light food labelling system, the majority answered four out of five questions incorrectly and only a small proportion found the information easy to navigate.

Thomas Brown, Associate Director, Research and Insights, CIM said: “The problem is not so much with the labelling itself but the lack of clarity in general. Consumers are bombarded by conflicting messages from the media on what constitutes a healthy diet, making it difficult for them to make informed choices about how to eat healthily. Government and industry should take a more collaborative approach to education and give consumers confidence in their purchase decisions.”

A significant number of respondents working within the industry (83%) admitted they had witnessed abuses in imagery and words on packaging to make products appear more healthily and 37% believe brand owners and retailers deliberately make it difficult for consumers to find nutritional information on food and drink products.

Nevertheless, both sides agreed the best way forward is through education and not legislation. Three quarters (77%) of consumers said industry should provide clearer information but that it should be down to individuals to manage their own healthy diets and overall consumers believe education and information were more effective than food labelling – as did 85% of industry respondents.

Education is the way forward

While education is already the focal point of many brands’ marketing campaigns, they are not necessarily effective, says the report. Just under half of the industry (43%) said they had increased spending on consumer education initiatives in the last 12 months with a further 57% planning to increase spending over the following 12 months.

But too many companies are still relying on on-pack information and consumer websites to disseminate the information, despite only one per cent of consumers saying they trusted brand websites as a source of information on health and nutrition.

Brown commented: “Our research has shown that industry is taking their responsibilities very seriously and investment in education is increasing. The majority have clear corporate objectives and are well attuned to consumer needs, but while consumers have a lot more information at their fingertips a lot of brands are using limited channels to transmit this information. A real challenge for industry will be to not only increase efforts in their consumer education initiatives, but to do this in increasingly innovative and engaging ways beyond the packaging.”

On a positive note, the research did find consumers have an increased awareness about healthy eating, with 58% saying they now pay more attention to nutritional content and almost 50% said they would put products back if the nutritional content looked bad.

Sugar content ranked the most important factor for consumers in their purchase decisions, closely followed by calorific content and general ingredients. Surprisingly fat content and salt were ranked fourth and fifth respectively.  

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