Only about 18% of European consumers check processed foods for nutrition, with colour-coded schemes open to some misinterpretation, according to a new study.

The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) study showed that high levels of consumers are aware of schemes such as the traffic light system but are open to “some misinterpretation”, with 73% of people believing that a ‘red’ light indicated they should avoid eating a product.

The study, which questioned some 17,300 people in France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Sweden and the UK, both in supermarkets and at home, found that people spend an average of 30 seconds selecting a product. By comparison to previous studies, this is substantially more time than previously observed. The UK was lowest at 25 seconds per product, and Hungary the highest at 47 seconds.

Despite this, consumers were fairly confident that they understood the labelling systems, because across all countries, at least half could correctly solve a number of tasks involving interpretation of GDA and other nutrition information on labels.

“While there are several nutrition labelling schemes across Europe, our findings show that people recognise them and generally know how to use them to make informed nutrition choices”, said Professor Klaus Grunert of the University of Aarhus, Denmark, who conducted the study. “Nutrition labelling should be seen as a key element in a rounded public health strategy.”
Sweden, which uses a keyhole logo to identify the healthier products in a food category, had the highest awareness of any labelling system at 95%.

When probed as to the fat, sugar or salt content of foods, the majority of respondents were able to answer correctly. On average, respondents in the UK, Hungary and Germany got 70% of the responses right, 60% in Sweden and France, and 57% in Poland.