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Back to Qualitative Data

Consumer Perception and Understanding of Front-of-Package Nutrition Labelling

While some studies show that front-of-package labelling helps consumers identify healthier foods, others suggest that consumers may misinterpret these labels. The understanding of front-of-package labelling appears to depend on a combination of factors related to the label format and consumer characteristics.

What is front-of-package labelling?

Front-of-package labelling refers to symbols and rating systems, including shelf-tag labels, which are designed to summarize the key nutritional characteristics of food products.1 Front-of-package labels have been proposed as an approach to help consumers make healthier food choices at the point of purchase. However, there are concerns about the possible misinterpretation of front-of-package labels.

What is the optimal front-of-package format?

Currently, there is no consensus on the most effective front-of-package format. There is a wide variety of front-of-package labelling systems that are inconsistent, which may add to consumers’ confusion.2 In its 2011 report, the Institute of Medicine recommended a single, simple and standardized front-of-package system.1

While some studies have found that a single and simple format may be preferable, others have found that consumers value labels that are more complex and detailed.3-5 A 2013 systematic review concluded that nutrient-specific labels (which provide individual rating for certain nutrients), in contrast to summary systems (which are based on an overall nutritional score), helped consumers more easily identify healthier foods. The text and colour that indicate nutrient levels were also more helpful than actual numeric information in the interpretation of the labels.6

It has been suggested that the preference and understanding of front-of-package labels may vary according to consumer characteristics, such as ethnicity and socioeconomic status.7,8 The understanding of label information also appears to depend on nutrition knowledge.7,9

What are some other concerns related to front-of-package labelling?

One issue with front-of-package systems is that instead of indicating the overall nutritional quality of food products and their contribution to a healthy diet, they indicate healthiness based on the content of specific nutrients. This may mislead consumers and give them a false perception of the nutritional value of a food product. For instance, a Canadian survey found that front-of-package labels, such as a “traffic light” system, may decrease the perceived healthiness of wholesome foods that are included in Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide, for example salmon, eggs, almonds, certain types of cereals made with wheat bran fibre, and cheese. Conversely, the study found that the front-of-package labels led to increased perceived healthiness of less nutritious foods that are not part of the four food groups, such as sugar-free gelatin desserts, fruit punch and diet soda.10

Study limitations

Most front-of-package studies are non-experimental surveys and are not conducted in a real-life shopping setting.6 The results may also differ depending on the front-of-package labels or food products that are examined. Furthermore, the results of the studies may not be generalizable given the participant profiles, sample sizes and locations.

Also, there is limited data on the relationship between other information on the package (such as nutrition claims and the Nutrition Facts Table) and the front-of-package label. Moreover, even if consumers accurately understand front-of-package labels, it is not evident that this understanding will change purchasing behaviour or that consumers will actually choose the healthier options.

For more information, see Impact of front-of-package labelling on food choices and purchasing behaviour.

Conclusion

The ability of consumers to correctly understand front-of-package labels appears to depend not only on the features of the labels but also on consumer characteristics.

Because front-of-package labelling systems in general rate the healthiness of foods based on certain nutrients rather than the food as a whole, these labels may not give an accurate idea of the food’s overall nutritional value or its contribution to a healthy diet.

Whether there is an optimal format for front-of-package labels that can be easily understood remains to be determined.

Keywords: nutrition labelling , Institute of Medicine


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