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Are Consumers Creatures of Habit?

16 September 2013

DENMARK - Nutrition and health declarations on foods can help consumers onto the right path when buying healthy food for the family – or can they?

According to an investigation by  scientists from Aarhus University, it is supposed to be so easy to buy food, but many consumers do not understand the details that are on the labels.

Many food products have labels declaring the contents of, for example, fat, fibre or vitamins. The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration even employs the Keyhole label that combines several nutritional declarations in one label.

But what do the consumers say?

Do they understand and use the nutrition and health claims when they choose the products to go into the shopping trolleys?

The scientists from Aarhus University were commissioned by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration to examine this issue.

The results of their research are published in a report by the DCA – Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture, University of Aarhus.

"Eating habits and food choices are a hot topic in the political debate. Diet and eating habits have an impact on the incidence of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. On the political side, there is a desire to guide consumer choice of food in a healthier direction," said one of the authors of the report, research assistant Kristina Aachmann from the Centre for Research on Customer Relations in the Food Sector (MAPP Centre) at Aarhus University.

We are Creatures of Habit

The results of the study show, among other things, that consumers do things by habit.

"Food shopping is very much influenced by habit. Although consumers perceive health as an important issue when choosing foods and perceive foods bearing health claims as being healthier, it does not necessarily sway them into buying more of this kind of labelled product. A number of other properties such as taste, price, brand and packaging, also influence our choices," said one of the co-authors of the report Professor Klaus G. Grunert from the MAPP Centre.

Nutrition and Health

The study focused on certain groups of foods, namely dairy products, breakfast cereals, ready-made meals, soft drinks and oils and fats.

The scientists examined consumer response to nine different nutrition claims and five health claims.

Nutrition claims are messages that indicate that a food has particular beneficial nutritional properties due to the presence or absence of energy, nutrients or other substances.

An example is the common Nordic Keyhole brand which aims to help consumers choose healthier foods. Other examples include expressions such as "sugar-free" or "low-fat".

Health claims tell you about the link between a food or its constituents and health. There are two types of health claims. One type is related to the effect of a substance on the body's physical or mental functions or weight control. An example of this is "Calcium is important for the development and maintenance of bones."

The second type of health claim describes or concerns the potential reduction of the risk of contracting a particular disease. An example here is "Contains cholesterol-reducing plant sterols. A high blood cholesterol level is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease. "

In general, consumers have a medium to good understanding of nutrition claims, but a significantly poorer understanding of health claims. A large proportion of consumers even believe that it is industry and not the authorities that are responsible for the health claims.

Understanding – and Misunderstanding – the Keyhole Symbol

Scientists from the MAPP Centre had a special focus on the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration’s Keyhole label. Previous studies have shown that more than 90 per cent of consumers know this symbol.

However, when it comes down to understanding exactly what the symbol means, it is a different story.

Consumers understand the general message that Keyhole products are healthier, while the finer detail is apparently less well known.

Few consumers know, for example, all the nutrients covered by the label.

Thus, 60 per cent of the consumers surveyed knew one of the nutrients included, but only 10 per cent could name fat, fibre, wholegrain, sugar and salt as also being included in the label.

Some consumers misunderstand the concept of the Keyhole label and associate it with organic farming, additives, calories /energy content, or environmental impact.

The study saw a deliberate use of Keyhole products in half of the cases and the Keyhole symbol was the claim most often found on the products selected by consumers. The results also indicate that a certain section of consumers actively select or deselect keyhole-labelled products.

Room for Improvement

In general, nutrition and health claims seem not to have any large effect on consumers’ selection of groceries, which is largely influenced by habit.

The survey results do not show, however, whether consumers are actually aware of the symbol at the point of purchase.

The scientists therefore do not know whether a possibly small effect of the label is because it is not noticed or whether it is because consumers do not attach any great importance to it when choosing products.

"More information on this would be very useful as consumer awareness of different labels may be affected by the design of the packaging – the size and positioning of the label, for example," said Kristina Aachmann.

Do you know your Keyhole label?

  • Keyhole is the official label of nutrition of the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries making it easier for consumers to identify the healthy foods at the supermarket.
  • Foods with a Keyhole label meet one or more specifications for the contents of fat, sugar, salt, fibre and/or wholegrain.
  • Keyhole has its own website ( Here you can find recipes for healthy and delicious meals and get more information about the keyhole symbol.

You can also read the articles ”How well do the Danes understand dietary guidelines?”, ”Labelling foods with protected designation of origin could have hidden potential” and ”Food labelling – understanding sign language”.

The survey was financed by the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries.

Aarhus University

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