Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Consumers and food

The minutes from a May meeting of the group Diet, Physical Activity and Health - A European Platform for Action are now available online. During the meeting the preliminary results of the annual report 2012 Platform monitoring have been presented, which show that the members of the platform promoted physical activity, worked on food reformulation (e.g., in line with the EU salt reduction framework) as well as introduced stricter definition of advertising to children. 

A few new national initiatives have been presented. And so, in France in the period 2012-2013 'Increasing vending choice to promote healthy eating habits' initiative is to be implemented. The French Vending Association introduced a 'Feel Good' label in November 2011 that is being assigned to vending machines and not to the products. Vending operators may volunteer to participate in the program and they will get the label if they offer a specific minimum number of products from four categories: beverages, cereals, fruit and vegetables, and milk products. At this point ca 3.000 vending machines (out of ca 50.000) in France qualify for receiving the label and are able to offer more healthy choices to consumers. This development was possible due to new technological possibilities for vending machines sustaining different temperatures in various parts thereof. It will be interesting to see whether this initiative will be picked up by other Member States. 

In Denmark specific action was undertaken to encourage industry to participate in the strategy of reducing salt intake by consumers. The goal is to reduce the daily salt intake by 3g by 2014. Aside the European framework and European-wide actions, the Danish government is looking into strengthening criteria for obtaining a keyhole label, which can be placed on 'healthier' products in terms, e.g., of salt. Special information campaigns are being conducted by the government, as well. Restaurants and catering in Denmark are being monitored to reduce the salt usage. Finally, industry of processed foods reported salt levels in their products and intends to adopt the lowest 40% fractile as its benchmarking target.

The BEUC announced during this meeting that it is looking into increasing consumer awareness about nutrition information in 'out of home' settings. Many consumers indicate that they would be interested in receiving this information, e.g., on calories, when they are eating out in a restaurant. The representatives of the European Modern Restaurant Association pointed out, however, that the European market for eating out is not uniform. In general, only 15% of European meals are consumed in restaurants. It differs by Member States whether consumers eat out in chain restaurants or SMEs. These differences may require different approach to providing consumers with proper information. Additionally, conducted empirical research shows that only 15% of consumers use calories information and there is no sufficient evidence that it changes consumer preferences. 

A research conduced by the European Food Information Council in 6 countries showed that almost all surveyed consumers checked the price and 'use by' date of the product, but only 30% looked at the portion information. Many consumers think that a portion is the amount a person should eat and what a person is likely to eat and often perceive it as either of a right or small size. Another research showed that 46% consumers know how many calories per day a person needs, with women being more knowledgeable than men. Many consumers wrongly believed that children's energy requirements were higher than adults'. Most consumers underestimate energy expenditure, as well. Consumers perceive high calorie-high fat products as the most unhealthy. (How do consumers respond to portion information on food and drink labels?)

Additionally, information was presented on whether more attractive labelling of food could contribute to better knowledge of nutrition information. The results of a survey show that while well-designed labels can attract attention, that is not enough to increase consumers' motivation to read labels. Consistency and familiarity are more important than adoption of a particular format. It was recommended to put the information on the front of product packaging. (Nutrition labelling can guide consumers but a lack of motivation and attention stand in the way of healthier food choices)

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