Food Labels Are Ignored

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.

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

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.”

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

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

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.

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.


Translated by
Dann Vinther