We are reaching label fatigue
Updated: Aug 12, 2019
We hear all of the time that people want to know more about the food that they are eating. I think that’s true. The problem we have is that everyone doesn’t want the same information about the food they are eating. The fragmentation of food markets - more people wanting different things - means it is ever more difficult to provide individual customers with the information they want.
We are also seeing an increasing drive to mandate information on food products. Health Canada is moving towards mandatory front of package labelling. This will require that foods above a certain threshold in calories, fat, and sodium have a label on the front of the package highlighting that. I also recently read an article suggesting that some people want to label all food products with its environmental footprint. I believe that we are now approaching the point (and are likely beyond it) that we are providing so much information on product labels that consumers are processing almost none of it. If we want people to process some information relative to the foods they are choosing (or not choosing) we need to give them less, and not more, information. That requires prioritization and focus. I’m not sure we are anywhere near a consensus yet.
Label fatigue means that people default to previous purchases or price to make food choices. We’ve done some research (publication forthcoming) that says GMO labels have almost no impact on consumer choice. It appears that the non-GMO label works for those that are interested and the other consumers were indifferent or unaware.
Eye-tracking technology allowed us to evaluate the degree to which people looked at different elements of the packaging. Less than half of the people even looked at a label. Most of those that did look at the label did not change their choice. We found the same thing with showing calories on restaurant menus.
Next up, we will evaluate both front of package calorie, salt, and sugar labels and look at different approaches to menu labels. My expectation is that the information will have little impact on consumer choice unless we simplify and prioritize the information we provide.
It may be tempting to try to give consumers more and more information in order to “improve” choices. However, the evidence suggests that it doesn’t work.
In my view, adding more information may actually reduce the amount of information that consumers take in. We need to think long and hard before we add more labels. We’re likely better off actually removing some labels.
Recommended citation format: von Massow, M. “We are reaching label fatigue”. Food Focus Guelph (44), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, July 30th, 2019.