Research highlights 'food labelling shortfalls'

28th January 2014 - Fine Cut

Health-conscious individuals who are hoping to improve their diet by making better choices about the foods they consume are failing to look at product labels to find out more about the ingredients of their weekly shop. 

According to research carried out by the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, food labels are not as effective as once thought when it comes to influencing the spending habits of members of the public - something that could have implications for their health. 

Researchers, who examined 591 responses from online questionnaires, found that individuals react better to labels that provide relatable and clear information that can be easily converted into exercise expenditure. 

In addition, consumers are more likely to pay attention to labels they feel concisely explains which products are good and those that are bad for their health. 

As part of the study, participants were provided with a survey that featured different ways of communicating nutritional information. The item labels including walking and running details, which stated how many minutes of exercise were needed to burn off the product. 

Postgraduate student Michelle Bouton said: "Our findings showed that the current daily intake system was so insignificant that only 23 per cent of participants recalled seeing it. This was alarmingly low compared to the recall rate of the running (89 per cent), walking (93 per cent) and traffic light label (70 per cent).
 
"Our study found that those who were presented with the walking label were most likely to make healthier consumption choices, regardless of their level of preventive health behaviour.

"Therefore, consumers who reported to be unhealthier were likely to modify their current negative behaviour and exercise, select a healthier alternative or avoid the unhealthy product entirely when told they would need to briskly walk for one hour and 41 minutes to burn off the product."

Conclusions suggested that information and numeric figures on food labels could actually be ineffective in helping consumers with low levels of health literacy to make informed choices about the food they eat. 

In fact, researchers argued that packages including images and colours are far more effective and understandable for regular members of the public. 

The study's findings have spurred many health professionals to call for action to improve the general wellbeing of individuals who have limited knowledge about ingredients that are beneficial and potentially harmful. 

In the UK, retailers have hailed the adoption of a traffic light system of labelling, which advises consumers on how fattening certain products are by featuring either red, amber or green images on food packages. 

Although the new method has been welcomed by health campaigners and consumers, the nature of highlighting unhealthy food has caused controversy in some countries of the European Union. 

Last month, Italy in particular threatened diplomatic repercussions, claiming that its most popular exports - including Parmesan cheese, salami and olive oil - will be considered high risk foods under the new scheme.

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