In Germany there is currently an increasing trend towards organically produced food. © jackfrog, fotolia.com

In Germany there is currently an increasing trend towards organically produced food. © jackfrog, fotolia.com

2016: New food packaging regulations

The new presentation of details is currently still voluntary, but by the end of 2016 it will be mandatory for all EU food packaging to specify nutritional values – with the exception of alcoholic beverages. The States, too, will soon have stricter rules, as their regulations – which date back to the 1990s – are now being revised.

Export made difficult by differences

Graphic displays are to help consumers develop healthy eating habits. © Neyro, fotolia.com

Graphic displays are to help consumers develop healthy eating habits. © Neyro, fotolia.com

Food and packaging manufacturers have until December 2016 to adjust to the new EU regulations. From then onwards all allergens, calorific values and six other mandatory nutritional values will need to be placed visibly on the back of the packaging in easily intelligible language and in a font size of at least 0.9 millimetres. The UK, in particular, is hoping that the specification of calories and sugar content will help to combat rising obesity figures among the population.

Extended labelling requirements are currently also being implemented in the States where the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued additional regulations. These are intended to help non-experts towards a better understanding of the terminology and to ensure improvements concerning portioning advice and packaging size details, thus preventing unhealthy eating habits. It is also hoped that a more readable design will improve the level of consumer protection.

Professionals in the industry often criticise the lack of international standards. Aspects such as the name, quantity/ volume, manufacturer’s details and indeed most of the ingredients are subject to the same standards on both sides of the Atlantic. However, there are often different regulations on how to specify those details. This is certainly a factor that causes problems in international trade. But do consumers actually read the product details on the packaging?

EU

US

Quantity/volume

per 100 g

servings per container

Specifications

salt

sodium

olive oil

vegetable oil

Identifier

E-number (numeric code)

product name

Table 1: Different standards for the specification of food on packaging cause problems in trade between the EU and the US (own compilation, January 2016).

What do consumers look for?

Right now nutritional values on packaging are still voluntary. On 1 December 2016 this will change throughout the EU. © alexskopje

Right now nutritional values on packaging are still voluntary. On 1 December 2016 this will change throughout the EU. © alexskopje

Numerous surveys and studies by independent institutes around the world have shown that consumers only pay a minimum of attention to product details on packaging. There is evidence that trends towards organic food and biodegradable production are not motivating consumers to base their choices on health criteria. And this is not due to any lack of understanding of product details.

The following findings should be of interest:

  • Consumers in the EU spend an average of only 25 to 100 milliseconds looking at nutritional information.
  • 60 per cent of consumers in Canada, the United States and South Africa believe that nutritional value tables are important.
  • Although 80 per cent of North Americans do check for fat, sugar and calories, those details are not critical to their purchase. Rather, they are guided by reasons such as habit and family preferences.
  • German consumers see the best-before date as the most important product detail, followed by the list of ingredients and the manufacturer.
  • 30 per cent of all customers check for volume/quantity.
  • 90 per cent are price-conscious when making purchases.
  • Married people pay more attention to calories.
  • Women are more likely to read product details than men.

Packaging design plays a major role

The majority of consumers still base their purchasing decisions on taste and habit. © industrieblick, fotolia.com

The majority of consumers still base their purchasing decisions on taste and habit. © industrieblick, fotolia.com

As product details are read more frequently if they catch attention straightaway, the FDA decided to include new design specifications for labels in its amended regulations. A psychological experiment has shown that consumers’ purchasing decisions are affected by more than the ingredients, the price and the taste: 140 respondents were asked to choose between a low-calorie and high-calorie muffin, while the packaging showed either a ballet dancer or a football player. The combination of a low-calorie muffin and a ballet dancer was aimed at female respondents, whereas the high-calorie version with a football player targeted male consumers. In the experiment, the pictures and the muffins were combined in all the possible ways to find out the effect of gender-specific packaging features when combined with either calorific or less calorific muffins.
The result: Women found that the combination of low-calorie and a ballet dancer tasted better. By contrast, men felt that the high-calorie version tasted better in combination with the football player. In all, however, the low-calorie muffin was far more popular among both gender groups – and the majority of respondents said they were happy to pay more for it.
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