Business School Topics
Alarming increases in obesity and the accompanying concerns of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer have triggered warning bells among the nation's policy makers. The need to do something is obvious - exactly how to approach this complex and contentious issue is less clear.
Obesity is caused by an imbalance between what we put in our mouths and our physical activity levels. Any serious attempt to halt increasing obesity rates will need to address both diet and exercise. In the diet realm, it seems that people consistently underestimate the amount of energy they consume. Current food labelling laws seek to ensure that consumers can access the information they need to make appropriate food choices, but on a population level this is not having the desired effect. The average diet remains far removed from that recommended in the Department of Health and Ageing's Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. So why aren't people using the information provided on food products to make better food choices?
There are many answers to this question. In the first instance, and not surprisingly, taste tends to dominate food selection. Evolutionary processes have ensured that we perceive foods higher in sugar, fat, and salt to be tastier than their healthy equivalents, hence the raging success of fast food outlets. Another consideration is price. Lower income households, where obesity levels are highest, are especially susceptible to cheaper foods. Unfortunately, these are often are the most processed options. Convenience is a further factor, with packaged foods presenting time-poor individuals and families with benefits that are difficult to resist.
Finally, consider how nutrition information is presented on most packaged products. Typically located on the back of the pack in smaller text, nutrition information can be difficult to find, read, and understand. Research shows that most consumers take only a few seconds to choose a product from the supermarket shelf, and they often only read the information that is located on the front of the pack. To overcome the time constraints shoppers face in store and to compete effectively with the strong forces of taste, price, and convenience, health experts are increasingly realizing that nutrition information needs to be much more ‘in your face'.
Various solutions have been proposed to make nutrition information more visible and compelling. The food industry has introduced the daily intake guide that features the ‘thumbnails' you have probably seen on a range of products in supermarkets. The information provided in the thumbnails basically repeats the information contained in the nutrition information panel on the back of the pack, but in a different presentational format. There are several problems with this approach. In the first instance, many consumers lack the numeracy skills necessary to understand the percentages stated, and they can find it very difficult to relate the information to their total diets. For example, knowing that a serving of a particular cereal gives you 15% of your recommended daily sugar intake is only useful if you know the percentage of sugar in every other food you consume during the day and add them together to see if you are exceeding the recommended level. Another problem is that the figures given relate to a standardized serving that is based on an average adult - not particularly helpful if the consumer is a child or an adult of non-average size. It is also likely that the amount of the product poured into breakfast bowls varies substantially from the serving sizes nominated by manufacturers.
Another front of pack labelling approach is the traffic light system. Research has consistently found that showing consumers red, amber, or green ‘lights' indicating the relative levels of saturated fat, sugar, and salt can improve their understanding of the healthiness of products. Such a system can allow people to compare products within the same food category (such as which yoghurts have less sugar) and can also alert them to the quality of their overall diet. Research has shown that this system can be especially effective in communicating with less educated consumers who can be disadvantaged when attempting to comprehend more complex nutrition information. This is important because overweight and obesity are over-represented among lower socioeconomic status individuals, and they therefore have much to benefit from a food labelling system that meets their information needs.
While there is a lack of research to tell us whether traffic lights would work in the ‘real world' where consumers have access to traffic light information on every food product and have been advised of how to interpret the traffic light labelling system, the response of the food industry in Europe provides insight into the likely effectiveness of the approach. It is estimated that €I billion was spent opposing the traffic light system to prevent it being adopted by the EU parliament. This would appear to be weighty evidence that traffic lights have the potential to make substantial changes to people's food consumption patterns.
A recent Food Labelling Review has recommended the introduction of a traffic light food labelling system in Australia. Aware of the intense industry reaction elsewhere, the Review concluded that a voluntary introduction phase would allow manufacturers to come to terms with the system prior to it becoming mandatory at some point in the future. However, it was also recommended that where manufacturers make certain types of health claims on their products, they should be obligated to display the traffic lights. This would ensure that consumers are not receiving misleading information when only partial truths are conveyed on the front of the pack.
The Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council is currently formulating its response to the Food Labelling Review recommendations. Once this response is released, it will become clearer whether traffic lights will become a feature of the Australian grocery landscape.
Professor Simone Pettigrew is from the UWA Business School and was a member of the federal government's Food Labelling Law and Policy Review Committee, which delivered its final report, Labelling Logic, in January 2011.