Nutripocalypse: The Nutrition Labelling Overload

11/05/2016 12:23 | Updated 11 May 2016

Is supermarket food labelling truly assisting in healthier lifestyles, or is it leading to information overload for the nation's shoppers?

Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of IT firm Slack Technologies Inc., recently compared the concept of 'information overload' to the diabetes epidemic. Much in the same way cases of type 2 diabetes have increased alongside consumers' seemingly infinite access to cheap caloric food, Butterfield suggests consumers are beginning to also experience a kind of "cognitive diabetes" from the infinite flow of free information available to them. His reference to a lifestyle illness to reinforce the argument that there really is such a thing as too much information is jarring but perhaps also quite apt. Endless flows of information are becoming part of consumers' day to day lives but are not necessarily going to benefit their quality of life.

It's been just under a month since Mars Foods warned us that some of their products are not suitable to eat everyday and consumers have had the chance to digest the growing likelihood of facing yet another label to consider when grocery shopping. While PR professionals have commended the food giant's initiative to introduce 'everyday' versus 'occasional' labelling to some of its products, the move has attracted suspicion from Sustain, one the UK's key public interest organisations in the agri-food arena. Speakers for the organisation have expressed concern that the move will serve only to confuse shoppers.

Mars Foods' decision to throw their weight behind a label to help consumers make more informed choices comes after the Royal Society for Public Health issued their own call for the addition of 'activity equivalent' calorie labelling on grocery products. These labels would illustrate how much activity is necessary to burn off the calories contained in the food and drink products that consumers buy. This information would most likely take the form of 'pictorial icons' featured prominently alongside existing front-of-pack (FoP) labelling. This could mean in addition to current nutrition labels, consumers might see stick figures sprinting, swimming or cycling with the approximate number of minutes it would take to work off the product's calories by pursuing each activity.

If little stickmen doing aerobics on your bar of chocolate or packet of crisps isn't enough, there have also been ongoing whispers of including more visible indications of how much sugar is in what you eat. Tesco have been assisting in the development of an initiative whereby food or drink items judged to have low added sugar content could be awarded a 'Sugarwise marque' - a bitesize spoon of sugar motif.

Adding more labels to grocery products, while representing an intuitive and reasonably cost-effective way to communicate nutrition information to consumers, is not without its fair share of weaknesses however. Featuring stickmen, spoons of sugar, and everyday vs occasional markers alongside existing front-of-pack labels risks turning the shopping mission into a labyrinthine negotiation of an ever-growing medley of claims, symbols, images, numbers and iconography.

One of the existing nutrition labelling aids - the 'traffic light' system - has become a familiar label on our groceries, though it was originally met with mixed feelings. Research published last year in the Journal of Customer Behaviour confirms that while many consumers refer to labels and appreciate their intention and importance, information such as traffic light colouring can be experienced as ambiguous. The research also sheds light on consumers' uncertainty regarding the system's 'technical complexities' such as the differences between fat and saturated fat.

To add to the confusion, labels like the traffic lights don't necessarily work in absolute isolation. In getting the most out of the system, consumers are expected to pay attention to overall 'reference intakes' (or 'RIs' - which have replaced the GDAs of yesteryear), and tot up the fats, salts, sugars and total calories of what they eat throughout the day.

This of course is all going on while we get to grips with an ever expanding miscellany of peripheral supermarket labels attesting to our groceries being 'natural', organic, 'free-range', fat free, gluten-free, 'very low gluten', suitable for vegetarians, sustainably farmed, 'Red Tractor' certified, 'RSPCA Assured' (previously 'Freedom Foods'), or Fairtrade certified.

Between ever more crowded supermarket aisles, increasingly more sophisticated in-store advertising, point of sale displays, promotional signage and the existing front-of-pack information overload there is no guarantee that more information will better enable consumers to think more critically as rational decision makers.

Taking a cautious step back from information labelling and looking at ways to begin actual conversations with consumer populations could make a remarkable difference. Working on educating consumers and facilitating programmes that will empower them to make responsible choices throughout their lives seems to be the obvious approach. Nevertheless, deciding on how this would take place remains the elusive Holy Grail of health communications. Some have suggested ratcheting up efforts to ensure effective food technology and cooking skills are made compulsory in all schools, while others have pointed towards a more hefty focus on group education sessions and weight loss programmes for adults through the NHS, or encouraging (and policing) big food brands to foot the bill for engaging communities in responsible and healthful activities.

In any case, facilitating creative initiatives which involve and engage with consumers on an active and ongoing basis might represent a welcome alternative to just providing yet another image or pictorial to food packaging.