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Traffic light signals on food and drinks still far from clear for consumers

04 October 2012

  • Almost a third of UK consumers ignore them despite thinking they’re a good idea
  • There is overwhelming support for one universal labelling system

London, [4th October 2012] – Traffic lights (colour codes that indicate fat, calories, salt levels etc.) have been present on food and drink packaging for a number of years now but they have failed to clear up the landscape, research expert Canadean Consumer has found. In a recent survey of 2,200 UK consumers, almost a fifth still find them too difficult to understand, and only a third think they make a product more trustworthy.

According to the NHS, “nutrition labels can help you choose between products, and keep a check on the amount of foods high in fat, salt and added sugars that you're eating.” However, it seems that not all consumers agree. In fact, a significant proportion (19%) say they add too much confusion to the buying process, and indeed 15% say they do not understand them at all.

“We’ve never been more interested in reading labels than we are right now” says lead consultant Mark Whalley. “Consumers today have more knowledge about food and drink than they’ve ever had, and this has a significant impact on the buying process. We want to know what’s in our groceries, and how they’re going to affect our health.

“And yet the need for time-saving measures is tremendous. Consumers are faced with an abundance of choice and not nearly enough time to carefully consider each label. Traffic lights were supposed to make this a quicker and easier process, but this research finds that there is some way to go.”

Consumers were most united in their desire for one universal labelling system. Traffic lights which measure different attributes or serving sizes defeat the object of making an instant judgement possible. In total, 73% of consumers agreed this was needed, with particular support coming from females (75%) and seniors aged 55+ (81%).

This is not to say that food labels aren’t serving a purpose. Indeed, almost half (46%) of consumers use them to inform many purchases, and a third (32%) say they prefer to purchase products which have one on the label. And interestingly, more than a quarter (29%) have chosen not to purchase a product they had initially intended to buy once they had seen the traffic light.

“These results have big implications for the grocery industry,” Whalley continues. “Firstly, the assumption that everyone understands traffic lights is wrong. Labelling needs to be clear and informative to reach everybody. Secondly, manufacturers should never assume that the presence of a traffic light on their product is enough to garner trust – it is an unbiased window into the product and most consumers use it as such. And most importantly, the industry needs to be more open to collaborating on one accepted system. The evidence suggests that this would be in the best interests of consumers, which in turn is in the best interest of the market.”

Traffic light signals on food and drinks still far from clear for consumers


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