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Do food labels promote healthy eating in Europe?

18 May 2021
7 min reading time

What are the key challenges when it comes to nutrition labelling in Europe and what more can be done to empower consumers to make healthier food choices?

Food labelling is the face of food; it is responsible for transparently and effectively communicating nutritional information so that consumers can make informed, healthy food choices. As the European Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy states, healthy eating is one of the most important parts of the transformation of the food system, but does food labelling and current regulation allow consumers to make healthy choices?

Almost one in five (19%) children and one in six adults (17%) is either overweight or obese across EU countries (1). And, as the leading cause of mortality in Europe (2), poor diets are linked to 18% of deaths in the EU (3). Healthy eating has a fundamental role to play in reducing these figures, and food labelling is key in helping consumers to make healthier choices. However, despite the fact that suppliers follow the same regulations, there are many challenges in how food labels promote healthy eating across the EU.

Is nutrition labelling confusing and inconsistent?

Same ingredients, different rules

Food labelling can often be confusing and even misleading for consumers (4). The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) uses the example of whole grain bread where some countries have made rules that whole grain bread must contain 100% whole grain flour, but have not done so for other products such as whole grain cereals or biscuits (4). This means that consumers who see whole grain printed on a food label may assume it contains 100% whole grain flour when it does not, leading to confusion.

Mandatory vs voluntary

Confusion can also exist between mandatory and voluntary nutritional information. Current EU law requires “the vast majority of pre-packed foods to bear a nutrition declaration” (5). This includes the energy value and the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt found in the food.

However, indicating additional information that may help consumers eat more balanced diets, such as the amount of starch, fibre, vitamins and minerals, is currently voluntary in the EU (5). This means that different food products are displaying different information, making it hard for consumers to use the same approach across different elements of their diets. This presents an opportunity for the food industry to go beyond labelling and ensure consumers are aware of what makes a healthy diet before they have to navigate labels on food products.

Positioning of labels

Nutritional information also does not have a regulated or universal positioning on food products. In fact, it is often found on the back of food products (5) meaning time-poor food shoppers may not see the information immediately and miss the opportunity to factor this into their purchasing decision. The global nature of modern food supply chains also means there is an increase in foreign products on supermarket shelves, meaning labelling schemes and positioning differ greatly between products (6).

Marketing and misleading claims

Consumers may also not look at the label on the back of food products if they assume it is healthy due to the way it is marketed. A green package or persuasive language, for example, may mislead the consumer. Terms such as ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ that give the impression of being healthier or higher-quality can lead to confusion and, as a result, a lack of consumer trust (4). Words such as ‘craft’, ‘artisanal’ or ‘home-made’ can also create emotive ideas of small-scale, healthy production when the reality of the nutritional profile of the product may not reflect this (4).

The EIT Food Trust Report 2020 revealed that the majority of consumers have concerns about the mass production of highly processed products with too many artificial additives and waste, made worse by confusing and misleading claims on labels (7). It also found that better food labelling is important for building consumer trust, with the Nutri-Score scheme, a coloured nutrition rating system recommended by governments across Europe, highlighted as particularly helpful for consumers (7).

"A key determinant that is sometimes overlooked is motivation or intention to eat healthier. If that lacks, people often do not even notice labels! So any introduction of a (European) front-of-pack system should be accompanied by intensive and continuous campaigns that cover all behavioural change steps (from generating awareness and boosting motivation to eat healthier, to making better choices with tools, and consolidating the changes in behaviour)."

- Gerda Feunekes, PhD, Executive Director, Netherlands Nutrition Centre

What makes a good nutrition label?

The European Commission is proposing actions to introduce mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling, designed to make universal labels that consumers can understand and use to form healthier diets.

Although front-of-pack food labelling is currently voluntary, most consumers declare that they find it helpful. This is as high as 78% in some EU countries (8) and the demand for front-of-pack labelling is highest among older and overweight consumers (8). But before front-of-pack labelling can be deemed useful and understandable by all, labelling schemes must be designed to grab the attention of consumers.

Several characteristics can increase attention to front-of-pack nutrition labels:

  • A larger label size can help to capture consumer attention faster, increasing the likelihood of the given nutritional information playing a part in purchasing decisions. This is also particularly important for visually impaired consumers.
  • Less ‘other’ information, including minimal use of complex numbers and percentages, makes it easier for consumers to pinpoint key nutritional points on the food package and avoid distraction.
  • Universal label type and positioning is useful in helping consumers to identify the nutritional profile of different foods in the same way, no matter the type of product.
  • Colour coding or grading systems provide consumers with the confidence that a product has been officially rated as healthy or unhealthy in an easy and visual way.
  • Good colour contrast between the label and the package ensures information is clear and legible.
  • Recognisable graphics and endorsed logos such as the Choices logo are visually stimulating (8) and offer an element of trust for consumers. This includes clear nutritional warning logos and symbols (6).

Although front-of-pack schemes aim to better grab the attention of consumers, evidence into their public health benefit is said to be ‘sparse’ (9). This is partly owing to the difficulty of proving direct links between a consumer using a specific type of nutrition label and their consequential health benefits (9). The role that marketing plays in influencing consumer purchasing decisions is also important. Nevertheless, some studies that use a scenario-based structure have predicted that front-of-pack food labelling could increase the number of consumers choosing more nutritious food by approximately 18% (9).

The benefits of front-of-pack labelling is also highly variable across consumer groups (9). Factors such as age, education level, health motivation and cost of the product mean that consumers will use nutrition labels in different ways (8) and some may choose not to use them at all. How people are responding to newly innovated foods such as alternative proteins is also uncertain (9). The recent uptake and promotion of plant-based food, for example, might mean that consumers do not always consider nutrition labelling. These are all important to consider in the production of future nutrition labels.

"Front-of-pack labels should also be on all products, otherwise consumers cannot compare anything. People need to trust the system. It needs to be transparent, logical and independent. Any inconsistencies with dietary guidelines should be avoided at all times. For example, the French Nutri-Score currently does not discriminate between white and whole grain bread, whereas all countries promote whole grain in their guidelines. Such inconsistencies can impact trust in the whole system."

- Gerda Feunekes, PhD, Executive Director, Netherlands Nutrition Centre

How can we help consumers to better understand labelling?

For food labelling to encourage better nutrition and healthy eating, regulatory bodies and the food industry must provide education to help consumers clearly understand them. If consumers were more aware, knowledgeable and confident about the different types of labelling on the market, they may be more inclined - and able - to choose healthier products. An example is the free EIT Food online course ‘Understanding Food Labels’ which gives advice to consumers on how to interpret food labels. Publishing guides, leaflets and instructions about the proposed mandatory front-of-pack labels, for example, may also be useful for consumers as new rules come into play.

EIT Food is also developing our new environmental footprint label, Enviroscore, that can be used in conjunction with any nutritional label and make it possible for consumers to choose healthy and sustainable products. More information on our new Enviroscore label will be available soon as part of our collaboration with the United Nations Food System Summit 2021.

The incorporation of technology into nutrition labelling can also help consumers to better understand labels. With demonstrated uses for digital traceability and transparency, QR codes, for example, could be used to give consumers immediate nutritional information and advice about food products with a quick scan of a smartphone.

LOEWI technologies can also offer consumers the chance to have food and supplements tailored specifically for their nutritional needs. For example, LOEWI, a member of the EIT Food RisingFoodStars network, creates personalised food supplements based on blood diagnostics and lifestyle data.

Whether it be education for consumers, clearer rules for the food industry or stricter enforcement from regulatory bodies, the future of labelling is crucial to the transformation of the food system. The importance of healthy eating has been put further in the spotlight by the COVID-19 pandemic and, as the European Commission prepares to adopt a mandatory front-of-pack labelling proposal by the end of 2022 (5), effective nutrition labelling is arguably more important than ever before.

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