Professor Isabelle Szmigin, University of Birmingham – Written evidence (FPO0017)

 

In answer to: What impact do food production processes (including product formulation, portion size, packaging and labelling) have on consumers dietary choices and does this differ across income groups?

1. Despite the perhaps excepted wisdom (from some supermarkets and producers) that consumers benefit from choice, there is too much choice for consumers. With a proliferation of products/brands particularly in calorie dense areas, one cannot expect consumers to check the labels/portion size on all the brands they are choosing from, when most can only take a few seconds to choose each item.

2. At the very least and what will be noted below, information labels and particularly portion size should be regulated to be the same on all products. I have completed two studies that have examined portion size on consumer choice (See (a) Szmigin, I. and Gee, Veronica (2017) ‘Mystification and Obfuscation in portion sizes in UK food products’ Journal of Business (b) and Szmigin, I.  Consumers’ Front-of-Pack (FoP) Label Food Literacy and Confusion in Decision Making ( submitted to Food Policy). In the latter study on traffic light labelling we found that portion sizes for the same products differed, which led to confusion and difficulties in comparing similar products. Therefore one thing regulation could do easily is ensure that portion size for similar products is always the same.

3. We also found that there could be additional clarity or explanation for consumers in looking at traffic light labelling. We found that consumers are confused by a number of things including how many red nutrients they can eat, whether green nutrients balance out red ones, the role of amber nutrients etc., all of which are exacerbated when the consumer has to make a choice across a number of options with different suggested portion sizes. See extract below:

‘Use of the numerical information created overload confusion for some consumers. Each FoP label contains 20 pieces of numerical information, including 2 or 3 separate pieces for each nutrient. Inevitably, when comparing figures for multiple nutrients across multiple products mistakes occurred when 1) more nutrients were being compared, 2) a greater number of products were being compared and 3) when both of these were attempted simultaneously

In answer to: What impact do food outlets (including supermarkets, delivery services, or fast food outlets) have on the average UK diet? How important are factors such as advertising, packaging, or product placement in influencing consumer choice, particularly for those in lower income groups?

4. While there has been (probably inconclusive) research that looks at the correlation between advertising and consumption there are some issues that should be considered further.

looked at children’s cereals and how a portion size is presented in the imagery on the front of pack as against the portion size recommended on the back of the pack and found that the image was far to generous.

 

In answer to: Do you have any comment to make on how the food industry might be encouraged to do more to support or promote healthy and sustainable diets? Is Government regulation an effective driver of change in this respect?

5. While I am not convinced that the food industry is committed to reducing calories on the shelves or encouraging people to be in a situation to make better choices,  Manufacturers and retailers need to reflect more positive perceptions of eating healthily in their communications which might encompass taste, and a feel good factor. The concept of “naughty but nice” treats should be reduced. However, while there continue to be very high calorie options alongside ‘healthy’ options consumers will continue to balance out buying some healthy and some indulgent brands and the problem with this is that it creates the halo effect ( see below) and the result is that consumers may actually take in  more calories. This is important as it undermines the choice argument. There needs to be a reduction in absolute terms of highly calorific options.

 

6. Government needs to identify areas that will ensure a level playing field in terms of reducing consumer confusion and here regulation is necessary. Therefore the suggestion to ensure portion sizes are the same at least helps consumers to compute one part of their choice more readily. Other policy suggestions from the above mentioned paper (b) include:

 

In answer to: A Public Health England report has concluded that “considerable and largely unprecedented” dietary shifts are required to meet Government guidance on healthy diets.2 What policy approaches (for example, fiscal or regulatory measures, voluntary guidelines, or attempts to change individual or population behaviour through information and education) would most effectively enable this? What role could public procurement play in improving dietary behaviours?

 

7. Consumers need to be provided with information on how to balance nutrients. They need to be made aware of the implications of trade offs i.e. reducing the levels of some nutrients and increasing the levels of other nutrients when making product decisions. Clear guidelines would be extremely useful as people are influenced by multiple information sources which often only focus on one nutrient e.g. weight loss diets.

 

8. Our research suggested that there is a ‘halo effect’ going on with people thinking that consuming some green flagged nutrients outweighs red ones. This is dangerous as just means more calories are ingested and needs to be part of information campaigns.

9. Having said this there is a gap between literacy and capability. Information campaigns will not work unless consumers have the capability to act on them. We cannot expect time pressed families to look through detailed front of pack information that is not comparable from one brand to the next. We cannot expect economically stretched families not to choose cheaper bulk buys of highly calorific products – these actions must be undertaken by the manufacturer/retailer and if necessary as a result of regulatory changes.

 

Professor Isabelle Szmigin

University of Birmingham

11 September 2019