OPINION6 November 2012

How research could help food labelling dilemmas


The UK government is attempting to enforce a voluntary consistent system of front-of-pack food labelling next year. But within the food industry – and particularly among manufacturers rather than the supermarkets themselves – there is still grumbling. Stuart Chapman wonders if research techniques can help.

Under the government’s plans a combination of guideline daily amounts, colour coding and ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’ ratings will be used to show how much fat, salt and sugar and how many calories are in each product.

FMCG companies and supermarkets have, understandably, so far resisted moves to introduce a universal traffic light labelling of products to signpost nutritional information. It’s easy to see why a brand would stick to using the pack to communicate an overall healthy, happy impression but leave the stark information about salt and sugar low down the visual priority scale.

Although all UK supermarkets backed the proposal to introduce traffic light labelling by mid-2013, large FMCG companies, including Nestlé, Kellogg’s and Dairy Crest have warned they will not support a system which they say would unfairly blacklist many of their products for sugar and salt content, without recognising the positive nutritional aspects.

These manufacturers’ concerns are understandable and completely contradict the design research that goes into creating alluring packaging. For example, how will ‘healthy’ visual codes be believable for consumers when the corner of the pack is tarnished with a red indicator?

Brands like Eat Natural and This Water use a combination of simplistic and pure packaging design with their own product to convey their ‘health’ feel. The new system could challenge these codes in an instant and create a potential clash on pack.

Teasing out discrepancies

We often use in-home research techniques to tease out such discrepancies. In order for such a voluntary system to be a success it needs to address these design research principles.

Brands and the government need to work together to consider the implications of the move, such as how broad adoption of front-of-pack nutritional information will alter the notion of treat purchasing. If manufacturers are pressured into taking part, how thrilled will the recipient on Valentine’s Day be of a lovely, indulgent box of chocolates with nutritional information juxtaposed with the alluring design of the pack?

One could summarise the ultimate challenge for brands, in going beyond merely revealing their traffic light credentials on pack, as the task of designing a pack that can accommodate any conflict in messaging. The potential situation is that brands end up focusing more on brand personality, rather than product communication.

Finally, there is the question of how effective the on-pack labelling system will really be in encouraging healthy behaviour. A pack can only communicate so much, and although it might aid a more nutritional product choice at shelf, it is not necessarily going to encourage healthy eating and cooking at home.

At The Big Picture our studies have consistently noted that the current hotch-potch of Guidline Daily Allowances and ‘one of your five a day’ messages on pack are next to useless with most shoppers.

They can do very well with smaller brands such as Brighton-based Infinity Foods, which sells plain-packaged yet healthy snacks and ingredients such as porridge oats and lentils, and are likely to benefit from such a system as they will be able to shout more loudly about their superior healthy status.

Knowing the shopper mindset

However, only the most determined consumers with a particular focus on healthy eating, not to mention time on their hands, will read packs in the supermarket aisle. The rest look for obvious visual cues to help them get the shopping done fast.

In one recent study The Big Picture looked at what elements on hot beverage and laundry packs signal ‘sustainability’ to consumers. We found that people largely screened out logos and rational information about recycled materials or sustainable sourcing. Instead they were most likely to choose a product featuring a large picture of a beneficiary of sustainability.

In other words, a smiling farmer on the front of the teabag pack who had earned more from the ‘fair trade’ of his crops to make the product, or a contented-looking penguin on a detergent pack would be chosen as the most sustainable when all other factors were equal.

Reports suggest that talks will take place this month over the exact design of the labels. If those discussions go well it could mark the end of what has been a long-running campaign to introduce front-of-pack labelling. My hope is that brands encourage the government to consider such research techniques to address these discrepancies and place impetus on using intelligence like this themselves to make sure any interference with pack design delivers the real impact on behaviour they seek.

Stuart Chapman is research manager at international design research agency The Big Picture


12 years ago

Dear Stuart, I haven't heard about the traffic light labeling issue in the UK, but I really like the idea. Thank you for sharing this!

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12 years ago

When the first iteration of the traffic light system was introduced by the FSA a few years back, this was informed by a number of large scale research projects managed by the COI; hopefully the current government has referred back to this large body of evidence, but somehow I doubt it.

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