As the food industry grapples with the pressure to produce on-pack nutritional info in a consumer-friendly format, various studies have been undertaken to gauge consumer behaviour when choosing products, but more research is needed.

EU Food Information Council (EUFIC) director general Dr Josephine Wills told a London health foods conference this week that the last few years have seen considerably more discussion on nutritional labels. “An impressive amount of research has been undertaken with consumers in this relatively short space of time, carried out in academia or through market research companies,” she said. Much of this work has been commissioned by key stakeholders in the European food sector, but there was scope for consolidation of the findings in order to advance knowledge of consumer perception and interpretation for the wider industry.

Therefore, a review of the studies that have become available since 2003 was recently prepared for EUFIC by Professor Klaus Grunert of the Aarhus School of Business, Denmark. Altogether, 58 relevant papers or reports were identified, of which 13 were in the peer-reviewed literature. Analysis of the studies was guided by a theoretical framework in which the potential effects of nutrition labelling on consumers and their behaviour were considered. Aspects of consumer behaviour that are of particular interest are those related to purchase decision-making and to attitude formation and change.

One of the key findings was that people claim to look at nutrition labels, but less often under certain circumstances, such as when there are time constraints or when the label is difficult to read or understand. Further, fat, calories and sugar are the nutrients in which most people are interested.

Understanding of nutrition labels is still hampered by technical terminology, numerical calculations, and, for some people, percentages. Some nutritional terms (fat, sugar, calories, vitamins, salt) are better understood than others (saturated fat, sodium, fatty acids, cholesterol) and consumers appear to combine label information with their own stock of knowledge to make inferences about the product’s nutritional qualities.

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Dr Wills said that there was currently little insight into how labelling information is, or will be, used in real life, and suggested that consumers still had difficulty understanding how to apply the nutritional information to real-life shopping to compose meals, so this would be an area where further research could fruitfully be undertaken.

For further information on EUFIC’s study of consumer research, click here.