We ignore food labels

December 4, 2011 - 03:56

Politicians and organisations may have too much faith in food labelling. We read the labels but we rarely register the message. If something is said to be extra healthy, we become suspicious, new Danish research suggests.

Do you tend to avoid the great food products that claim to make you fit, healthy and a great lover? Then you’re in good company, research suggests. (Photo: Colourbox)

Food labels may not have the desired effect. Labelling schemes do not make us buy healthier food products, not even when the manufacturer spreads the health message across the whole packaging.

“Consumers are capable of seeing the labelling without consciously registering its content,” says Jacob Lund Orquin, who has just completed his doctoral thesis at Aarhus University's department of marketing and organisation.

Consumers follow rules of thumb

It is not only a mistrust of the manufacturers that stops people from registering the food labels, it is something far more fundamental:

“Consumers tend to follow two rules of thumb when they go shopping for groceries,” says Orquin. “One is their previous familiarity with the product, and the other is the food category. These 'rules' are so deeply rooted within us that they tend to trump all other available information. So even if a frozen pizza, for example, happens to be extremely healthy, we will perceive it as unhealthy because we regard the whole pizza category as unhealthy.”

This means that a labelling scheme such as the Danish 'keyhole' label, which indicates that a product is in the healthier end of its category, actually gets counteracted by our rules of thumb that say all foods within a certain category are equally healthy. So a particularly healthy yogurt will not stand out if we consider the yogurt category as generally unhealthy.

Orquin has conducted a long series of experiments, and they all point in the same direction: labelling schemes alone cannot change consumer habits. It would be far more effective, he says, to lower the prices of healthy products because countless studies have shown that price levels continue to be the top priority for consumers.

Eye-tracking of 2,000 consumers

In his experiments, Orquin tracked the eye movements of 2,000 people while they were looking at various food products and their labels. The participants were not aware of what they were being tested on, something which Orquin puts a strong emphasis on:

“If, for example, you ask them directly whether they believe milk with added vitamin D is healthier than milk without it, then they start reflecting over it and they often reply that it's definitely healthier with the added vitamins. And then it's fair to say that they are being misled by the health claims.”

This scenario differs greatly from a natural grocery shopping situation, where consumers rarely make such rational judgements. Instead they stick to their rules of thumb that say frozen pizzas are unhealthy and milk with added vitamin D is just weird.

Hunger makes us buy unhealthy foods

It may not be fair to talk about misrepresentation because it is only when we're being forced to reflect on the health claims that they actually register with us. Perhaps it's more suitable to say that we have become misled by our own superficiality.

Orquin's study also suggests a natural aversion to temptation. If we're highly motivated to live healthy lives, we develop an effective defence against unhealthy but tempting foods.

“Health-conscious people manage to automatically look away from the shelf with unhealthy foods. They have an ability to guard themselves from things that go against their goals. Our subconscious simply prevents us from seeing the candy shelf.”

Although this is a significant discovery which transfers easily into many areas other than just supermarket shopping, it has its limitations:

“Unfortunately this barrier only works if you're full. If you're hungry, you will still have an automatic focus on the tempting and unhealthy foods,” says Jacob Lund Orquin.

Read the article in Danish at videnskab.dk

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Translated by
Dann Vinther

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