Supporting the Commission report on front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labelling, the JRC reviewed the scientific literature on existing and proposed FOP labelling schemes and their effects on consumers and food business operators.
The overall conclusion: FOP nutrition labelling holds potential for helping consumers make health-conscious food choices.
With a bewildering array of food products on supermarket aisles, it can be difficult for consumers to know they are making the right call when looking for the healthiest option.
A nutrition declaration is mandatory in the EU, often provided on the back of food packaging.
It informs about the nutritional contribution that specific foods and drinks make to the overall diet, including the energy value as well as the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt. Increasingly, this mandatory labelling is complemented by voluntary information on the front of the packaging.
The idea behind this so-called front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labelling is to quickly guide consumers in the "moment of truth" when they reach for a product on the supermarket shelf.
In the EU, six different FOP schemes are currently in use that are endorsed by the public sector in various Member States. Besides these governmentally endorsed schemes, there are also various private FOP schemes present on the EU market.
Some FOP labels simply repeat parts of the mandatory nutrition declaration. Others use graphical elements such as colour-coding to indicate nutrient levels, and yet others rate the nutritional quality of a product according to a grading system or endorsement logo.
But does FOP nutrition labelling really work? And if it does, which FOP scheme can best guide consumers towards health-conscious food choices? Researchers at the JRC wanted to find out by looking at the available scientific evidence on the many FOP schemes around the globe.
The impact of front-of-pack information
Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows that FOP labels attract more attention than back-of-pack nutrition information. Consumers report high levels of attention to FOP labels (between 60 and 70%), hidden in-store observations indicate a somewhat lesser use.
Evaluative FOP schemes, which employ colour coding or nutritional quality ratings, were found to improve the ability of consumers to identify healthier options compared to reductive schemes which merely reproduce parts of the mandatory information.
More importantly, studies looking at consumers' intention to purchase show that FOP nutrition labelling, especially colour-coded labels with or without a graded indicator, can facilitate health-conscious food choices and improve the nutritional quality of shopping baskets.
There is consistent evidence that the use of labels is higher for certain consumer groups. In particular, women are more likely to read nutrition labels than men, and higher incomes and higher education levels go hand in hand with better understanding and use of nutritional information.
Amongst all existing FOP schemes, evaluative FOP schemes emerge as the most promising option across all socio-economic strata for consumer guidance towards healthier diets.
On the contrary, evidence is still largely missing on whether and to what extent FOP schemes have driven product reformulation and innovation by the food industry. Also, more real-world evidence would be helpful in understanding true impacts of FOP labelling, but such studies are difficult to design and run.
The JRC has prepared an extensive overview of front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labelling schemes around the globe and reviewed the scientific literature concerning FOP labels and their effects on consumers and food business operators.
A major emphasis is placed on consumer attention, preferences, and understanding of different FOP schemes, as well as effects on food purchasing and implications for diet and health.
The review also considers in how far producers' efforts on food reformulation and innovation may be affected by the introduction of FOP nutrition labelling schemes, describes potential unintended consequences of introducing FOP nutrition labelling, and highlights knowledge gaps and directions for future research.
- Publication date
- 20 May 2020