Symbols on foods as a tool to help consumers make healthy food choices

Project co-financed by:

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Description of the project (SICRIS):

Nutrition is an important external factor in the development of several non-communicable diseases and simultaneously a protective factor with positive effects on our health. In relation to this, the consumer’s perception and recognition of healthier foods is very significant. It is the consumer’s right to have credible information provided in order to determine whether certain food is good for her/him, what the food is composed of and whether the food is healthy. There are two primary aspects of the consumer choice environment: (a) the extent of the availability of product information; and (b) the prior experience consumers have with products. In addition, there are finite limits on the amount of information consumers can effectively use.

Making healthy food choices takes this a step further since it requires some additional restrictions. For that reason, we need to seek different possibilities to improve consumers’ food choices and their diet in the long term. One option is simplified labels which have been shown to enable a quicker choice of healthier food products. Health symbols are a good example of a food-labelling element which can help consumers when making food choices. Studying and implementing symbols to help simplify complex information has become an important part of food and nutrition research related to consumers’ food choice and eating habits.

Making healthy food choices easier and the possibility of enforcing the national scheme for easier recognition and choice of healthy foods is presented as part of the Resolution on the national programme on nutrition and physical activity for health 2015–2025. The project addresses the challenges that need to be resolved in order to establish additional voluntary food labelling on national level that will (a) enable healthier food choices and (b) encourage the food industry to reformulate food products, which would increase the availability of healthy food products in the food supply. The project is divided into four sections:

The first work package is focused on research into the symbols on food products as a tool for labelling healthy foods. We will evaluate the nutritional composition of foods available on the market that are labelled with nutrition or health symbols and compare them with foods that do not carry such symbols. This will provide information about whether the existing system for granting such symbols supports public health. In addition, we will evaluate how strict the criteria are of different nutrient profile models on a representative sample of pre-packed foods available on the Slovenian market. This will enable modelling and an evaluation of the influence the proposed national scheme for voluntary labelling might have on the food supply.

In the second work package, we will evaluate consumers’ response to symbols that appear on foods. The comprehension of nonverbal symbolic signs requires a minimum level of cognitive effort since simplified food labels can present complex nutrition information in a simpler and easier way. In the last few years, many new food symbols have emerged, mainly simple symbols labelling foods as healthier. A version of the latter that is also present in Slovenia is known as the Symbol of Protective Food (hereinafter: SPF). We will research recognition and understanding of the SPF among Slovenian consumers and what they associate with it. The results will help policymakers decide whether this scheme is a valuable starting point for the development of the national voluntary food labelling scheme, as planned in the national resolution on nutrition. Further, we will evaluate which symbols and accompanying claims used on healthier foods are preferred by consumers. 

In the third work package, we will investigate the typology of the users of nutrient profiling and voluntary food labelling, focusing on food business operators. We will look into understanding of the concept of nutrition profiling and of labelling foods with symbols, from the industry perspective, and evaluate the extensiveness of the motives, experiences, beliefs and limitations of such voluntary food labelling. This will contribute to the formation of the national voluntary labelling scheme with high potential for usage in the food industry. In addition, food operators will be segmented on the basis of their experiences and views related to use of the symbol as part of voluntary food labelling. We will also prepare recommendations on suitable strategies for incorporating companies into the voluntary food labelling scheme.

The last work package includes the preparation of recommendations, project dissemination and reports. In order to timely provide necessary information to the key stakeholders and support the effective spread of the information, all project results will be continually evaluated. Based on the results, we will prepare recommendations for forming the national scheme for the voluntary labelling of healthier foods. This will support effective evidencebased policy decisions in the areas of nutrition and public health. The project will also connect the key stakeholders that should participate in the development and introduction of the scheme for the voluntary labelling of healthier foods.

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Nutrition Institute
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Nutrition institute is engaged in research and education in the field of nutrition and advising the food industry in the formulation and labeling of foods. In the scope of the institute, research group Healthy Nutrition is established, which performs research on food and nutrition.