Prepared Foods September 19, 2005 eNewsletter

Although most European consumers want to eat healthy diets, they generally rely on marketing claims when choosing what food to buy, according to a survey carried out in five European Union countries, commissioned by the Bureau European des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC), the Brussels, Belgium-based consumer organization.

The majority of the survey respondents (77%) professed an interest in nutrition, and 81% said they welcome nutritional information on food packaging. However, at present, most people pay more attention to, and claim to understand better, the marketing claims made by manufacturers than the basic nutritional analysis tables that are shown on some packs, says the BEUC. Consumers also expressed a high level of trust in marketing claims, especially for well-known brands. According to the study results, marketing claims are the single most important influence on product choice at the point of sale.

However, the BEUC points out, "unfortunately, marketing claims are not in themselves a good guide to better choices, partly because they tend to stress only one aspect of the product. Nearly half of the respondents would be positively influenced to buy a product described as 'rich in calcium,' despite the fact that such a brand could also contain very high levels of salt, fat or sugar."

The result, according to Jim Murray of the BEUC, is that consumers make choices based on incomplete information and/or an imperfect understanding of the meaning of the information they are given. The heavy reliance on "marketing claims which describe only one aspect of a product is a problem that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency," he said.

The BEUC claims that the survey results underline the need to press ahead with proposed regulation of health and nutrition claims, including prior approval for new claims not previously known or accepted and a ban on the use of health claims on products with high levels of salt, sugar or fat.

It also wants the European Commission to bring forward, quickly, a proposal for mandatory nutritional labeling for all foods. "We favor a two-tier approach, combining a nutritional analysis table with a simplified labeling system on the front of food packs," it says.

Specifically, this should consist of a nutritional analysis table, including information in the form of Recommended Daily Allowances, combined with a simplified front-of-pack "sign-posting" system that conveys certain essential information in a manner that facilitates people's choice at point of purchase, it says.

Interpreting the survey results, the BEUC notes that, when it comes to choosing products in terms of their nutritional qualities, the situation is poor. It says that nutritional information, in the form of an analysis table, is not generally required on food labels and, even if it is present, it is not easy to locate, read and understand, mainly because of the use of small print size and difficult terms.

There is a high reliance on commercial communications in the form of health and nutrition claims, says the BEUC, which notes that such claims are placed in prominent positions on the pack, can be easily located but provide only a partial and often misleading description of the product in question.

When presented with a product that is considerably high in sugar but marked with a health claim, the majority of people could not identify any nutritional disadvantage, and many even described it as healthy, it notes.

The BEUC points out that, although claims are usually valid, they tend to present only one part of the picture, typically concentrating on the presence or absence of one nutrient or group of nutrients. As such, it says, "they are an entirely inadequate basis for a rational consumer choice and, indeed, provide no basis for comparing one product with another. Sadly, however, the survey results indicate that they are the single most influential factor in consumer choices, in terms of nutrition."

STUDY UNDERLINES CURRENT PROPOSALS The organization went on to say that the study's results underline the importance of the current EU proposal on health and nutrition claims and, particularly, the provisions on nutritional profiles and prior approval for new types of claims. "Since these claims are so influential and so powerful in their effects on buying behavior (especially for trusted brands), they merit careful regulation to prevent abuse, misunderstanding or misinterpretation," it contends.

To exercise their right of choice between one product and another, consumers must have access to product information that is accurate and understandable, and that enables comparisons to be made between competing products. It is necessary, therefore, to develop a standard system of on-pack nutritional labeling, says the BEUC, although it acknowledges that it will be difficult to devise an appropriate scheme to achieve this.

More information on the study may be found at