Although some countries require detailed nutrition information to be presented on the back or side of a food’s package, in recent years, manufacturers and retailers in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and other countries have also been placing simplified nutrition information on the front of a product’s package or on shopping aisle shelf tags.
There are many types of simplified labelling schemes in use throughout the global marketplace and other concepts proposed for how to design this type of labelling (Figure 1).
Some of these schemes are classified as nutrient specific, meaning that only a few key nutrients are presented on the front of a product’s package. Examples of nutrient specific symbols include the %GDA symbol, the traffic light (TL) concept and TL-%GDA.
Nutrient specific symbols often display nutrients in g and/or as a percentage of a consumer’s recommended guideline daily amount per serving. In addition to this quantitative information, some nutrient specific symbols also display text and traffic light colour codes to describe a product’s nutrient levels as ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’.
Although these types of symbols commonly display nutrients that consumers are recommended by health experts to limit in their diet including calories, total fat, saturated fat, sodium, and sugars, some symbols also highlight ‘positive’ nutrients.
Other schemes, referred to as summary systems, mean that an algorithm is used to determine a product’s overall nutritional score. Summary systems can be binary or graded.
Binary summary symbols are either present or absent on foods that meet specified nutrient criteria. For example, food companies in Australia can earn the Heart Foundation tick, a check mark logo, on foods that meet the organization’s nutritional guidelines.
Graded summary symbols provide a score or a ranking that is displayed on a product. This can be in the form of symbols such as a series of 0-3 stars such as Guiding Stars or a number from 1-100 or such as NuVal.
It is often wondered whether front of package (FOP) nutrition labelling and shelf labelling schemes are helpful to consumers or useful marketing tools for companies. To address these questions, a review of articles was conducted and the results are summarised in a question-answer format below.
1. Do front of package nutrition labels and shelf tags add value for consumers?
Studies suggest, that ‘yes’, FOP nutrition labels and shelf tags can indeed add value for consumers. Studies suggest and experts agree that consumers want nutrition information available to them so they can make informed decisions.
For example, results of a survey of Korean consumers found that, on average, FOP labelling is quite helpful and necessary when selecting foods at the supermarket.
Studies also indicate that consumers like and most easily understand FOP labels that are simple and include text and colour codes to describe nutrient levels. For example, a study has found that among a survey of over 1000 consumers, 56 percent preferred labels with four to five nutrients and 58 percent preferred nutrient contents to be distinguishable by colour.
On the contrary, labels viewed by consumers as ‘complex’ or that were difficult to understand only displayed g and/ or % guideline daily amounts. Several studies in New Zealand and Europe found that consumers with low income or education or who were less nutrition-conscious tended to prefer less ‘complex’ labels.
2. Can front of package nutrition symbols and shelf tags help you differentiate your products?
Yes, FOP symbols and shelf tags have been shown to help manufacturers and retailers differentiate their products.
A few studies suggest that if labels are simply designed, large and positioned in a consistent location on the food package that consumers will more easily notice them in the grocery store.
Interestingly, one study found that private-label products were more sensitive to the shelf tag system score changes than national-brand products. This suggests that a summary shelf-tag system can provide private-label brands with increased brand equity (for example, increased value).
Because private label brands are often a significant portion of a retailer’s profits using nutrition labels could be quite profitable. If FOP symbols or shelf labels could also convey assurance of food safety this could help sales of Asian products in world markets where consumer concerns are sometimes influenced by undo press coverage of a few incidences.
3. How do front of package or shelf nutrition labels influence product sales?
Although relatively few studies have examined the effect of product sales as a result of FOP labels and there is little evidence pointing to specific design features that are more likely to influence consumers purchase behaviour, four of the six studies reviewed found that consumers are more likely to purchase products indicated as ‘healthy’ by shelf tags.
For example, a study conducted by Hannaford supermarkets to evaluate the Guiding Stars program by analysing 12-month sales trends found that sales of ‘starred’ foods increased, while sales of non-starred foods ‘decreased’.
Many consumers had switched from purchasing fattier ground beef to lean ground beef and from purchasing whole milk to non-fat milk. Another study also examining the Guiding Stars program found a 0.5 percentage point increase in sales of starred foods after one year and a 1.4 percentage point increase in sales of starred foods after two years (see Figure 2)
Interestingly, the review found that nutritious-conscious consumers are more likely than less nutrition-focused consumers or consumers who are overweight to purchase products indicated as ‘healthier’ by FOP nutrition labels or shelf tags.
This may reflect a higher importance placed on price by these consumers or lack of knowledge to determine the healthiness of a product even with the FOP label. However, as noted earlier, when targeting these consumers, it’s most important to keep the label simple and incorporate elements such as text and colour that describe nutrient levels.
The comprehensive environmental scan and literature review found that, in general, FOP and shelf nutrition labelling systems are well liked and perceived as being useful by consumers to help select healthier products at the grocery store.
Therefore, by placing simplified nutrition information on the front of a food product’s package or on grocery aisle shelves, retailers and manufacturers can enhance the perceived value of their products and even increase their brand’s equity.
It is possible that this increased perceived value could even translate, in the mind of the consumer, to an overall sense of product quality. However, it should be considered when selecting the particular type of FOP symbol to promote your product that many studies have found that consumers like and most easily understand nutrition information presented as text and colour codes to describe nutrient levels as ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’.
On the contrary, consumers have more difficulty deciphering the meaning of quantitative nutritional information displayed as a percentage of their guideline daily amount or in g.
Given that FOP and shelf nutrition labelling symbols can be useful marketing tools for manufacturers to promote healthier products, historically speaking, government agencies have kept a close eye on this type of promotional method to ensure that nutrition information is understandable and not misleading for consumers.
Because nutrition conscious consumers may be already adept at identifying healthier products, special education efforts in addition to FOP labelling may be needed to attract less-nutrition conscious consumers to purchase healthier products.
For example, one might accompany an FOP labelling system with an educational marketing campaign that clearly describes how to use the labelling system. However, as the literature suggests simply designed labels incorporating text and colour may be easiest even for less nutrition-conscious consumers to understand.