Labels on packaging are meant to help people choose consciously, but this proves to be harder than it sounds. Hans van Trijp, professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour, pleads for a relative logo that would show consumers at a glance how healthy the product is relative to comparable products.
We are in the middle of a food reformulating trend, but Van Trijp doubts this will suffice. There is still a difference between what is on offer in shops, what people put in their baskets and what they truly consume at home. For one, the reformulating monitor (document in Dutch) of the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) reveals that salt contents of many products have already decreased. However, this does not show in consumed amounts, and the guideline of six grams of salt per day maximum is far from realised.
According to Van Trijp, the reason people eat badly is rather found in a lack of motivation than a lack of information. ‘Unhealthy products are easy to sell. As a producer, all you need to do is add enough salt, sugar and fat.’ Selling healthy products proves to be significantly more difficult. When it comes to taste, healthy and tasty are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Van Trijp calls it uphill marketing. ‘People are not made to resist this temptation, and information is far from being as effective as we had hoped. Besides, people are losing trust in the advice of food experts due to contradictory reports being published. The long-term influence on health just does not weigh against the immediate reward of tasty food.’
Logos and labels on packaging are meant to help people choose consciously, but Van Trijp wonders whether that is sufficient. ‘The labelling discussion is rather pointless. It is mainly held within politics, by parties that are led by their own interests instead of scientific insights. There isn’t a single scientific proof that nutritional labels on packaging have influenced the behaviour of consumers, or about the relative efficiency of logos.’
Van Trijp suggests another approach: a ‘relative’ logo that would provide the consumer with easy information on the healthiness of products. ‘Each product would be given an indication of “how healthy the category is” and “how healthy this product is within the category”. Take savoury bread toppings, for example: you could create a ranking of how healthy these products are relative to each other, based on objective nutritional information.’
(listed on the labels are: calories, fat, salt, sugars; left: ‘worst of the best category’; right: ‘best of the worst category’)
Stimulus for industry
Van Trijp is prepared to take it a step further by stating that these rankings could also be used as a stimulus for industry to reformulate their products. He suggests an annual nomination of the ten most unhealthy products in each category to be removed from the shops. ‘This would be done with a return guarantee if the producer manages to sufficiently improve the product within a year. It’s just an idea that still requires consideration and further development, but I think a lot could be gained if manufacturers would include reformulating in their business models.’