Get the low-down

7 May 2020

With the nature of labelling fast-changing, new and more explicit means of conveying information are required to inform an increasingly busy and convenience-focused market. Without the time or inclination to examine the nutritional details of their goods, consumers want labels they can quickly understand without resorting to intricate, exegetical analysis. Fortunately, there are a few new techniques in development. Matthew Rogerson reports.

In today’s pandemic-impacted world, there has been a range of habits and activities that have been updated or outright transformed. One area that has seen a surge in importance as people spend more time at home, is labels. Specifically, understanding the actual nutrition and health impact of food products.

The idea is that if nutritional panels display exercise equivalents, they might explain how much physical activity is required to burn off the calories in one serving. New labelling initiatives have been rolled out in various markets globally in an effort to simplify nutritional information, and ensure consumers are equipped to make optimal choices for their health.

Almost all consumers acknowledge the importance that exercise plays in improving their health. With the rise in sports nutrition and in governments encouraging their citizens to live healthier active lives, this will only increase.

Labels on most packaged food and drinks must meet strict requirements, including information about food allergens, included additives and storage instructions.

Meanwhile, the nutritional facts panel should serve as a quick and easy way to facilitate informed food purchases, including information such as the amount of fat, salt, sugars, calories and fibre per serving.

However, consumers are not necessarily aware of the amount or proportion of calories, fat or salt that is recommended for them, or considered to be sensible. Moreover, few consumers have the time or patience to compare the nutritional panels of different brands to determine the best choice.

Labels that use physical activity to contextualise calorie content can address this. This would place calorie amounts into a context that most consumers would immediately understand. Significantly, it could potentially deter consumers from too frequently opting for discretionary foods that are typically calorie-dense and nutrient-poor, if they see it plainly written in front of them that a short-term indulgence would require significant effort to offset.

Exercise-based food labels may help consumers better-understand calorie content, but they do not address other important factors, such as fat content, sugar type and sodium level. It is critical that exercise details on food labels do not undermine or overshadow other nutritional information, but complement it to provide a complete nutritional view.

In sight, in mind

In fact, research led by Loughborough University in December last year, found that if ‘physical activity calorie-equivalent’ food labelling was applied it might decrease intake by up to 200 calories per person per day as a result of consumers making healthier choices. While a holistic nutritional view is still necessary – as some high-calorie foods are also nutritious – physical activity equivalents can help give consumers some much-needed perspective.

In May 2016, the US FDA announced new rules on nutritional labelling that reflected updated scientific findings. Manufacturers with $10 million or more in annual food sales were required to switch to the new label by 1 January 2020, while manufacturers with less than that have until 1 January 2021 to comply.

Key changes to the label include: increased serving sizes to more accurately reflect the amounts that people tend to consume and their calorie counts, larger and bolder calorie information, and the amount of added sugar in the product. The new label highlights the importance of ensuring nutritional information is accurate, relevant and, importantly, is practical to use.

Mexico, determined to tackle obesity, has introduced a radical new labelling initiative. The Mexican Government has announced new standards that are designed to display warning labels on high-calorie products. The labels will require black octagonal stop signs to be printed on the front of packages, to be accompanied by claims such as ‘high in calories’, ‘high salt’ or ‘high in saturated fat’.

“Consumers are not necessarily aware of the amount or proportion of calories, fat or salt that is recommended for them, or considered to be sensible.”

The new rules are a significant departure from traditional food labels that largely aim to remain objective in what and how information is communicated. The proposed imagery is likely to create alarm, or even fear among shoppers, but is arguably a necessary step in Mexico, which declared an epidemiological alert in 2016 due to the high rates of diabetes and obesity.

$50 billion
Predicted value of the print label market by 2025.
Mordor Intelligence

There is a particular desire among younger consumers for less complicated food labels. One paradox of the information age is that, while digital technologies have empowered consumers with the of (often conflicting) information has arguably hindered a generation’s ability to distil what is accurate and relevant to them. This technologicallydriven burden may partly explain why younger consumers are more likely to find it difficult to decide which food and drinks are healthy.

Sporting chance

The increase in busy lifestyles has also driven the demand for convenience-oriented products across all consumer product sectors. That usually means quicker preparation, ready-to-eat/drink formats and portability, often at the expense of research in making healthy choices. Those exercise-based food labels may not only be positioned as a more practical means of communicating nutritional value, but also as a valuable shortcut for health-conscious shoppers seeking efficient ways to make healthier choices.

The mainstreaming of the sports/performance nutrition segment is evident: the niche health sector that was typically confined to protein-fortified bars and powders, has now expanded to categories as varied as yogurt, coffee, cereal and even chocolate. Additionally, sports nutrition consumers can no longer be pigeonholed as weightlifters or bodybuilders, but rather, reflect a broad range of people including fitness enthusiasts, athletes and weight-conscious consumers.

The rise in sports nutrition can be attributed to consumers recognising that food and drink choices are pivotal in supporting the physical and mental demands of exercising. Indicative of this, according to research published by GlobalData in its 2019 Q4 consumer survey, over one in five (22%) of global consumers are interested in, and actively buying, food and drinks specifically designed to support fitness and exercise routines. Moreover, an additional 29% of consumers are interested in such products but are not yet actively buying them, suggesting valuable opportunities for growth if brands can communicate the benefits in a more compelling way. Those methods might include, for example, labelling that more practically conveys the chemical and nutritional goods of the food to which it pertains.

The formulation specifics of food and drinks that support exercise routines are naturally the most important purchase-driver. However, product labelling can play a key role in supporting ingredient information and functional claims. Furthermore, exercise-equivalent labelling can reassure consumers that their hard work will not be negated by a caloriedense post-workout snack.

Set for expansion

In addition to the existing number and variety of labelling systems that are already being implemented, there is a strong likelihood that even more labelling approaches – with differing agendas – will be introduced over the next few years. For example, GlobalData predicts that a traffic-light labelling system may soon be implemented by brands across the consumer products industry to indicate the environmental impact of a product or service, from manufacture to end-use.

Blockchain will significantly transform how consumers interact with product labels as well. The distributed digital ledger can trace and record transactions to strengthen supply chain management and improve transparency. More manufacturers will leverage this technology, in combination with physical product labels, to offer ‘farm-to-fork’ traceability. This will become increasingly important as consumers demand more provenance information, particularly with regards to food safety and animal welfare.

Smartphone apps have driven the propensity to ‘self-quantify’

Consumers have access to a profusion of apps, tools and devices that enable them to track many different aspects of their lives, from how often they exercise and the number of calories consumed, to the amount of time spent in front of screens and how long they sleep – leading to the cultural phenomenon of the ‘quantified self’.

Over a quarter (26%) of global consumers, for example, state that they typically use their smartphone to monitor and analyse their daily activities and lifestyle. This proportion is predictably higher among millennials (32%) and Generation Z consumers (29%), who are most likely to simultaneously feel empowered by – and dependent upon – digital technologies, in order to conduct a range of everyday activities.

There is clearly a desire among consumers to utilise the information available to them in order to make optimal choices, particularly for their health and well-being. Given that consumers are already engaged with self-tracking data, exercise-based food labels essentially reframe nutritional information in a way that is more relevant and usable. For example, communicating the calorie content of one product portion as 30 minutes of brisk walking, can simply and easily be measured by even the most basic fitness-tracking apps or devices.

While the ‘quantified self’ is propelled by digital tools and information technology, at the core of it is the need for self-knowledge. Implementing more practical nutritional labels on food and drinks can mitigate confusion among consumers, and represent an important step towards empowering them with the knowledge and information shortcuts they need to modify behaviours and improve their quality of life.

Source: GlobalData


Comparing the nutritional values of the same products of different brands is a time-consuming prospect.

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