Background: Easily accessible and comprehensible nutrient information on the front of packaged foods can assist shoppers to make healthier food choices. Research in 2007 showed traffic-light labels allowed consumers to identify healthier products, however further research was needed to identify the optimal design of labels.
Aim: To present results from three pieces of consumer research that investigated nutrition literacy to inform components of front-of-pack labels and tested consumers’ ability to use a range of mock labels.
Methods: Two studies used qualitative (n=40) and quantitative methods (n=405) to survey shoppers’ understanding of energy terms (‘energy’, ‘calories’ and ‘kilojoules’) and commonly used terms that provide guidance about frequency of consumption (‘eat often’,’ ‘eat moderately’, ‘eat occasionally’, ‘a sometimes food’, and ‘an extra food’). That information informed a third study, an online questionnaire (n=4357) to examine shoppers’ ability to use seven different front-of-pack labels to identify the healthier food product in nine pairs.
Results: Participants expressed uncertainty about their understanding of kilojoules and associated high energy with positive attributes such as providing sustained energy. Interpretation of frequency of food consumption terms varied considerably. The five labelling schemes that provided information on multiple nutrients (including total fat, saturated fats, sugars and sodium) enabled participants to identify the healthier product over 80% of the time. None of these schemes performed significantly better in terms of shoppers’ ability to determine the healthier product, reliance on the ‘back-of-pack’ nutrition information panel, and speed of use.
Conclusions: Any front of pack nutrition labelling scheme introduced in Australia will be more effective if it includes information on fat, sugar and sodium content in addition to energy. Any scheme introduced must be accompanied by an education campaign, particularly noting the poor understanding of energy and kilojoules.