The Efficacy of Food Labels: Are They Really Helpful?

NDTV Food  |  Updated: July 19, 2017 13:20 IST

The Efficacy of Food Labels: Are They Really Helpful?
One of the primary purposes of labels printed at the back of food items is to ensure that the consumers make a right choice, arising from a complete knowledge of what goes into making his everyday food products. It is an act of transparency that the food industry or the company per say undertakes to educate its customers about the choices they are making in terms of processed foods. However, a recent study suggests a gradual blurring of clarity in terms of food labels. Food labels now seem to be flooded with information, which, instead of educating the consumer, is confusing him further.

(Food label changes as proposed by the FDA​)

"We found that the range of labels used by retailers and manufacturers can be confusing to customers for a number of reasons," said lead researcher Sheena Leek from the University of Birmingham, Britain.

"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, grams per serving and a related colour scheme - can cause overload confusion," added Leek. Technical complexities, such as the difference between fat and saturated fat, also confuse the customers

Experts are of the opinion that while most customers check the 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. Traffic-light labels use red, amber and green signals to show consumers, at-a-glance, whether a product is high, medium or low in fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. To make healthier food choices, consumers should choose more products with green or amber lights than red.

(Traffic light labelling brings unhealthy food to a halt!​)

"The aim of FOP nutritional labeling is to help customers make healthy dietary choices as an aid to reducing obesity," said Dr Leek who also led the study. "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? People are in a hurry when they are shopping, spending in general no more than 10 seconds scanning nutritional labels. We need to make things easier for them," Leek said.

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(Whole Grain Food Not Always Healthy)

The study was published in the Journal of Customer and involved face-to-face interviews with 30 shoppers of varying demographics and was based around the comparison of three read-meal lasagna featuring a range of FOP labels. In one test, 40 per cent of respondents failed to identify the healthier product when two traffic light systems - circular and horizontal - were compared. 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.


Inputs from IANS and PTI

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