Consumers confused over food labelling

Just over half of people don’t understand food labelling, according to CIM research. They want brand owners and retailers rather than government to do more to explain what is in products.

The impact of food labelling has been the cause of much debate over the past year as healthy living has moved up the public agenda and the Government tries to tackle health issues such as obesity and heart disease. Last week, senior doctors said children are eating too much salt, while earlier this month the World Health Organisation said people should cut their sugar intake by half.

All of this is influencing brand communications and the level of trust that people have in brands.

The traffic light system used for measuring sugar, salt, fat and calories, introduced last year, has gone some way to simplify content labelling for consumers, although it is a voluntary system and not all brands believe it is the most appropriate method. There is also still widespread concern about the use of misleading language and imagery that can make products seem healthier than they are – using the word sodium instead of salt, for example, or showing a picture of a farm to give the impression of the food being wholesome.

Clarity and coherence

As a result, 70 per cent of UK consumers think food and drink brands could do more to explain what is in their products, and 59 per cent think retailers should do the same, according to a two-pronged study by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM, supported by YouGov and The Marketing Trust, which represents the views of consumers and industry (see methodology below).

Despite Government efforts to bring coherence to food labelling, 51 per cent of consumers still think nutritional information on packaging is difficult for the average shopper to understand. And brand owners and marketers tend to agree, with 55 per cent admitting they could do more to make product information simpler and easier for consumers to understand.

New regulation ahead

Interestingly, while 81 per cent of the industry states that they already go beyond the minimum required to provide clear and accurate product information, in the past six months 83 per cent claim they have seen other brands using images or language to suggest a product is healthier than it actually is.

This points to a disparity between what marketers believe they are doing and how it is perceived on the shelves. 

United Biscuits, owner of McVitie’s, has not signed up to the Government’s traffic light system, preferring to use their own ‘per unit’ guide

“Marketers are telling us that they have strong standards in place, and 75 per cent say it is a clear business objective to encourage behaviour change among consumers and to take responsibility. But perhaps some are being a little underhand in their approach,” says Thomas Brown, associate director of research and insights at the CIM.

“Clearly the industry is taking it seriously but there is obviously quite a way to go when industry respondents say they are seeing some questionable behaviour by other brands when they visit the supermarket themselves.”

Encouraging behaviour change

Despite notional support of food labelling regulation, 91 per cent believe this will be best achieved by investing in consumer education – not more legislation.

As a result, 43 per cent of industry practitioners spent more on consumer education initiatives last year and 57 per cent will increase investment in 2014. “I know we’re post recession now but we’re still in relatively challenging times for budget owners. This financial commitment is a strong sign that industry is taking this matter seriously,” says Brown.

All this comes ahead of the new Food Information for Consumers Regulation (FIR) that comes into force in December, the result of an EU-wide review of general food and nutrition labelling legislation, which was approved by the European Parliament. Under the new law, origin requirements will be tightened, nutrition information will become mandatory on the back of packaging which can be repeated voluntarily on the front and allergen information will be extended to non-prepackaged food, along with a host of other rules.

Lack of faith

While 70 per cent of the industry believes consumers will be best served by food labelling legislation rather than self-regulation, Brown thinks this is more about standardisation than rule setting.

“Standardising the traffic light system for the benefit of the consumer makes sense and having an independent third party doing it – the government or a regulator – is easier than brand owners and retailers fighting it out to try and decide among themselves,” he says.

Only 50 per cent of marketers reckon increasing regulation would better protect consumers, which Brown thinks suggests a lack of faith in the way rules are communicated to consumers, particularly in light of their poor understanding of the traffic light system. “Setting the standard is one thing but helping people understand it is a different thing. Consumers are capable of making their own choices; what they are looking for is better information not more rules and restraints.”

Information is not being shared

Indeed 77 per cent of consumers agree it is their job to ensure they have a healthy and balanced diet, not the Government’s job to legislate for it. Part of the problem is that despite organisations having these policies and practices in place, they are rarely made transparently available to consumers and often are not even shared with internal teams, partners and suppliers.

While 91 per cent of companies share information about food labelling standards and nutritional information with both marketing and product development teams, only half make it available to sales teams, 30 per cent to agencies, 28 per cent to suppliers and just 7 per cent to the public.

“If a brand has clear policies of benefit to the consumer but then doesn’t share that information with them, it raises questions. Likewise, would it not be beneficial to share that information with suppliers and agency partners who are ultimately doing a lot of the design and communication work that consumers see?” asks Brown.

Despite the various channels brand owners and retailers could use to communicate with consumers, it is still the more traditional they opt for, the research finds. On-pack information is the most frequently used method with 84 per cent of organisations choosing to educate consumers about their products this way, followed by a dedicated website, which 63 per cent have. Just 30 per cent have a social media channel for this purpose and only 18 per cent host online events such as Facebook Q&As.

“What consumers want and what the industry believes is the best way forward are aligned. Both think the best approach is to make information easier to understand rather than introducing more regulation. Whatever the Government decides to do, at least the industry is investing in educating the public about food labelling, which can only be a positive thing.” adds Brown.


The Chartered Institute of Marketing surveyed both consumers and practitioners in the food and drink industry to get an overall view of food labelling in the UK.

Over a week long period in February it surveyed more than 2,000 UK consumers that have primary responsibility for grocery shopping for their household or significant influence over grocery purchases. It spoke to 18- to 65-year-olds, split between ABC1 and C2DEs distributed regionally across the UK.

In parallel it surveyed 100 large organisations, including brand owners and manufacturers of consumer facing businesses, grocery retailers and a small number of marketing services providers that specialise in retail or brand sectors.

Within those businesses the CIM spoke to a mix of senior marketers and people in senior commercial roles, as well as people in product, research and development, nutrition, corporate affairs and public affairs.

Marketers’ response


John Taylorson
Managing director

DairyStix and Malmesbury Syrups

The fact 57 per cent of food and drink businesses plan to increase investment in consumer education over the next 12 months is very interesting. Perhaps it is a reaction to the media interest in nutrition and therefore companies feel it is important they make the case for their products so that consumers see it in context. 

It will be interesting to see whether consumers are better informed after these efforts. I would hope that they are but we must be careful not to confuse people further or frighten them off products they otherwise would have consumed had they taken a balanced approach. 

But this isn’t just the responsibility of brands. Everyone in the supply chain must play their part. The brand might be the meeting point between consumer and product but lots of other parties have vested interests and they should also ensure the consumer is well informed.


Martin Glenn

Chief executive
United Biscuits

Packaging alone will not solve a public health issue. It’s important to get it right but if there is too much information consumers will struggle to deal with it.

It surprised me that 77 per cent of consumers think that public health is a personal issue, but it’s encouraging because fundamentally problems like obesity will get solved by individuals making better choices.

Companies that sell food should be part of that process but let’s not overdo what a label can achieve.

United Biscuits hasn’t signed up to the latest traffic light scheme because we feel telling consumers the calorific content per unit is more useful. We offer full guideline daily amounts for saturated fats, salt, calories and sugar, along with a definition per biscuit, which is more useful.

More labelling isn’t going to solve the problem, it will actually make it worse. Let’s instead have a holistic approach; it should be about lifestyle and diet.