Consumers are confused. So many claims abound on food
products that knowing what is good, better or indifferent is a complex task.
And when shopping, time is of essence. Analysing each product, the claims it
makes and the ingredient list is taxing. So a short cut like traffic lights
would have been most welcome.
There are two key problems with food labelling for
consumers, knowing whether to trust them and understanding what they mean.
The nutritional basics are well known. It is best to avoid too
much sugar, fat and salt. Too much of these just aren’t good for you. But does
“low fat” actually mean better for you? Consumers are well aware that this is
not always the case. “Low fat” has, in fact, become somewhat synonymous with
high levels of sugar. And “sugar free” is understood to mean containing
“artificial sweeteners” And they don’t trust the latter due to the many media
stories about their “dangers.”
One woman spoke of buying a particular “low fat” product she
enjoyed and being perplexed at continuously gaining weight. She then checked
the ingredient list and discovered it to be filled with sugar. A competitor
brand, that made no such claims, was found to contain much lower sugar.
Consumers also don’t really know what most claims mean.
There are some labels they assume to be good for them yet have no idea why.
Anti-oxidants and omega-3 are prime example of attractive food labels. Yet ask
consumers what the benefits of these are and they are at a loss for words.
By-and-large they have no idea. One woman said “I don’t think they have made a
case for the badness of oxidants yet, that we should avoid them so much.”
Labels that are popular are fast adopted by marketers and
their interpretation is sometimes used very loosely. What exactly is an organic
product? It is assumed to be an unadulterated or less processed. But the
definition is vague and used accordingly. “Free range” is another one receiving
intermittent media attention. How free are chickens producing “free range”
eggs? In many cases, consumers have learnt, not very.
As confusing as labelling is, and as vigilant as they need
to be, there is no time for that. Supermarket shopping needs to be quick. Few
people treat this activity as a leisurely one. For most it is squeezed in
before or after work or weekends amidst many other time constraints. So they
seek short-cuts and assume them to be at least somewhat true. Labels like
“lite” are ambiguous, but seen as a better option to the competitor products.
It’s a reasonable compromise. Endorsements can’t be fully trusted but mean
someone, at some point, has tested the product and approved it.
What consumers are crying out for is universal labelling
enforced from above. Precisely what the green light system was advocating.
The system may not be all encompassing and nutritionists
will argue about the criterion used. But for consumers it would have been good
I recently attended a symposium on sugar organised by
academics. For a couple of hours I listened to experts presenting very
contrasting points of view, often disagreeing with each other’s findings. Asked
for a comment towards the end all I could say was: “what is your singular
message?” Experts spend their working life advocating one ingredient or
additive over another. Consumers don’t have the luxury of entering into such
deep analysis in order to make their decisions. They are in a rush to pick the
kids from soccer practice, drop them at a party, do the laundry and prepare
dinner. And, if possible, they’d like to chill out sometime, and I don’t mean
in a supermarket freezer aisle kind of way.
As imperfect as the traffic light labelling advocated might have
been, for consumers it would have offered a practical and trusted means of
making their lives easier. So they are all for it.