Our first aim in this study was to get a realistic estimate of the degree of usage of nutrition label information by combining observation in the store with an in-store interview concerning the observed purchase. Of all shoppers observed, 16.8% did look for nutrition information, and there was a good deal of variation both with regard to countries and product categories. We should also note that this figure represents rather the result of a sample of product choices than a sample of shoppers—a shopper who was not observed looking for nutrition information in this study could conceivably do so when shopping for a different product category, and vice versa. Also, the differences found between the six product categories indicate that the overall figures would look different if a different set of products had been used.
Whether an average of 16.8% of shoppers that said they had looked for nutrition information on the label is high or low is debatable. It is lower than the figures resulting from studies employing self-reported behaviour, i.e. asking respondents for their own estimate on how often they use nutrition information when shopping. The fact that the figure was highest in the UK suggests that the prominence of nutritional issues and especially of issues relating to nutrition labelling in the public debate plays a role, but the other country differences are not readily explained in the same way. Clearly, other national and cultural differences warrant more attention, e.g. national differences in interest in healthy eating and in nutrition knowledge do play a role, although these in turn ask for further explanation.
The other aim of this study was to measure understanding of FOP nutrition information, especially the GDA label. Understanding of the concept of GDAs is good in the UK, Sweden and Germany, more limited in Hungary and Poland and questionable in France. However, when it comes to applying the label information for relative judgements of products, no matter whether with regard to single nutrients or with regard to overall healthiness, most respondents were able to come up with the right answers. It seems that intra-category comparisons are not inherently difficult for most people, a finding that is in line with earlier research (see Grunert and Wills 2007
) and also with a recent study commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (Malam et al. 2009
). Still, we do see country differences also here, again with the UK showing best performance across all tasks, giving further support to the hypothesis that the length and intensity of public debate on issues of nutrition and labelling leaves traces in the population.
In addition to the country-specific differences, we found effects of age, social grade, interest in healthy eating and nutrition knowledge on both use and understanding of nutrition information. Interest in healthy eating and nutrition knowledge mediate the effects of country, age and social grade, but only partly, and it may be a safe assumption that the remaining effect of social grade has to do with aspects of ability to process the information. Age has two opposite effects—older respondents tended to have more interest in healthy eating, but less nutrition knowledge.
With regard to the potential of increasing healthy consumer food choices by nutrition labelling, three overarching conclusions emerge. First, when it comes to making intra-category comparisons among products, the proportion of people who seem to be able to do that, if they are given easy-to-process information on calories and key nutrients, is considerably higher than the proportion of people actually doing this when they go shopping. This suggests that, at least with regard to such intra-category comparisons, the real hurdle does not seem to be people’s ability to make use of the information, but rather people’s motivation to do so. Second, the finding that the UK subsample consistently had higher scores on both use and understanding than the other subsamples suggests that an intensive public debate on nutrition and labelling issues can indeed affect people’s thinking and behaviour. Third, it also became clear that considerable national differences remain, which cannot be solely explained in terms of differences in nutrition knowledge and differences in healthy eating and that attempts to promote healthy eating have to address these differences.
Two important limitations of the study should also be noted. First, even though shoppers may have looked at nutrition information in the store, this does not necessarily mean that this information has had an impact on their choice. Thus, the final question of whether nutrition labelling does increase the proportion of healthy choices in the store still remains unanswered. Second, this study has mainly investigated understanding of label information with regard to intra-category comparison. Using label information to compose meals, weekly shopping baskets and generally to manage one’s dietary intake is a much more complex task, and little is known about the potential role of labelling therein.