In many countries, packaged foods are labeled with the "Percentage Daily Intake" of nutrients available in the food. These thumbnail-like labels are provided to consumers to help them make informed dietary decisions when they shop. This nutritional labeling is not mandatory and is in addition to other nutritional information that is included in the nutrition information panel typically located on the back of packaged foods. The effectiveness of this type of labeling to support healthful food choices and eating habits is the focus of this brief.
Selection of Launch Approach
A top-down approach to promoting nutritional labeling is preferred because multiple instruments must be employed to increase consumer interest in healthy eating, and the labeling policy must be embedded in a comprehensive and robust promotional campaign. Perhaps more than policymakers, advertising agencies hold the key to successfully changing the minds of the public with regard to healthful eating.
The "Got Milk" campaign carried out by the dairy organizations is a good example of the type of marketing that is likely to generate more interest in healthful eating. The California Milk Processor Board (CMPB) hired Jeff Manning in June of 1993 as their executive director. One month later, Manning hired the San Francisco ad agency Goody, Silverstein & Partners to come up with an ad campaign for milk -- the campaign ultimately became one of the most popular and award-winning promotions of the decade. For years, the CMAB had counted on the campaign "Milk Does a Body Good" which echoed the government's nutritional program and encouraged the consumption of several glasses of milk each day for health. Consumers reportedly understood that milk was nutritious. Market research found that 94% of the respondents knew that milk was good for them, 90% knew that milk contained calcium, and a good percentage recognized that calcium could help prevent osteoporosis. Regardless of what consumers knew about milk, they didn't change their behavior to reflect that knowledge. Consumers of all ages -- especially young consumers -- considered milk boring. Once milk was promoted as a wholesome, good-for-you, product fresh from the countryside -- this chorus was sung by mothers, schools, pediatricians, dentists, and post-World War II nutritionists. With sales volume dropping, Manning followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, decided to abandon the advertising theme based on the nutritional value of milk, and went looking for a more appealing and competitive campaign.
The primary competitors of milk in the 1990s were Gatorade, Snapple, Mountain Dew, and Sprite. With glitzy packaging and lifestyle-enhancing portability, soft drinks outclassed milk. For the fast-moving packaged goods market, a rule of thumb was that it was harder to convert consumers to a product than it is to convince current consumers to buy more of what they already use, and ostensively -- like. The campaign first pushed forward with a deprivation theme that illustrated how well milk paired with other product, often co-branded products. From this successful promotion, the ads sought even cooler associations. The "Got Milk" ad campaign focused first on adolescent consumer, and then on the male adolescent and young adult market -- the logic behind this promotion was that marketers could keep or convert teenage consumers and move with them into an adult market that enjoyed milk. The next rational step -- and the advertisers took it -- was to get celebrities promote milk. The beverage became cooler than ever, sales soared, and more people benefitted from the nutrient value of milk.
Consumer Knowledge and Behavior
Consumer food choices are based on many variables, including their knowledge about the nutritional attributes of their food. Food choice research has identified variables that influence consumers' choices (Raine, 2005; Shepard, 2005). The variables, which include individual attributes and circumstances and environmental factors, have contributed to the development of a socio-ecological theory. The socio-ecological model provides a conceptual framework for research that encompasses micro-level to macro-level variables, and everything in between (McLeroye, et al., 1988; Story, et al., 2008).
When consumer choice research focuses on the interpersonal level, the variables that appear to be most influential are predominantly social. That is, what norms are perceived by the consumers, what do other people in their social networks eat, and what kind and degree of social support are available to them for healthy eating (Glantz, 2008; Drewnowski, 1977)? At the individual level, research invariably finds that consumers are most influenced by taste when they choose food (Drewnowski, 1977)? Other variables that influence the food choices of consumers include their attitudes and beliefs about food, health, and budget. Overlaying those factors are the demographic attributes such as gender, age, level of education attained, geographic region of residence, and ethnicity & race. (Devine, 2005; Honkanen, et al., 2005). At the environmental level, the dietary choices of consumers are influenced by the accessibility of food in markets and grocery stores, the restaurants, cafeterias, cafes, and fast food locations at which food is consumed, cultural traditions and expectations, pricing, and the available nutritional information that includes packaged food labels and point-of-purchase labels wherever food is accessed (Grasso, 2005; Willows, 2005).
Research has demonstrated that an easy to read, easy to understand food nutrient labeling system can be used to improve consumers knowledge about nutrition and support positive and healthful food choice behavior. Research on the "Percentage Daily Intake" labeling system supports the view that consumers may not be motivated or sufficiently persuaded to use the nutritional information on labels to which they are exposed (Bonsmann, 2010; Grunert, et al., 2010a; Grunert, et al., 2010b).
A recent study jointly conducted by Danish Aarhus University, the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), and food retailers in the United Kingdom measured consumer use and understanding of the nutritional information labels on packaged goods in retail stores (Bonsmann, 2010; Grunert, et al., 2010a; Grunert, et al., 2010b). This study is applicable to the impending launch of Percentage Daily Intake labels in Australia since it a larger study was also undertaken in six European countries -- a number of which have somewhat distinct orientations to food (Bonsmann, 2010; Grunert, et al., 2010a; Grunert, et al., 2010b). The study demonstrated that consumers in Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom had high levels of understanding of the nutritional information labels. Importantly, the larger research study also found that there were differences in the interest of healthy eating among these countries (Bonsmann, 2010; Grunert, et al., 2010a; Grunert, et al., 2010b).
Participants in the study conducted in the United Kingdom were able to identify the most healthful product among three comparable items. Accuracy was 88% with the Guidelines Daily Amount (GDA) labels, 84% with the Traffic Lights (TL), and 83% with hybrid labels comprised of both GDAs and TLs (Bonsmann, 2010; Grunert, et al., 2010a; Grunert, et al., 2010b). Interestingly, a study in Amsterdam with consumers in the Netherlands found that shoppers were more likely to identify healthy food when they saw the color-coded traffic light styled nutritional labels than when nutritional labels presented the numerical percentage of the recommended daily nutrient intake of the packaged food portions ("Study of Obesity," 2009).
There were two primary findings in this research -- one related to consumer understanding of the nutritional labels information and the other a measure of application of that nutritional understanding. The research found that consumers have a high level of understanding of nutritional information labeling that is independent of format, as reported in the scientific peer-reviewed journal Appetite (Grunert, et al., 2010a). This study -- which included in-store observations over 2000 interviews, and take-home surveys -- was a substantive improvement over earlier studies in which there was significant over-reporting of the use of food labels (Bonsmann, 2010; Grunert, et al., 2010a; Grunert, et al., 2010b).
Through its use of in-store observation and interviews, the researchers were able to determine that only 27% of the study respondents applied the nutritional information to their choice of foods. The researchers further found that of all the individual demographic and personal attributes that could have a direct effect on the use of nutrition information at the point of purchase, the only variable found to have a relationship to the food choices was an interest in healthy eating (Bonsmann, 2010; Grunert, et al., 2010a; Grunert, et al., 2010b).
The effectiveness of the "Percentage Daily Intake" food labeling system must be considered against the background of the disparity between behavior and intent. Available research on the effectiveness of nutritional labeling of packaged foods has focused more on the details of labeling and less on the issue of what motivates consumers to eat healthfully -- and further, what moves the consumer from good intentions -- as a function of their nutritional knowledge base -- to choices that actually manifest their intention ("Food Information Council," 2010). For a "Percentage Daily Intake" labeling system to be effective in Australia, a broad-based, top-down effort must be in effect. The research has concluded that "only when labeling policy is embedded in a broader nutrition policy that uses multiple instruments to…