Consumers prefer complex nutrition labels that combine traffic-light colours and Guideline Daily Amounts, but do not actually make better food choices as a result of them, a three-year research project on labelling has concluded.

In a study of consumers from the UK, Poland, Turkey and Germany conducted by the FLABEL research consortium, consumers consistently liked the most complex and information-dense labels - such as the hybrid GDA/traffic light system - the most.

But when they were asked to identify the healthiest product from a line-up of pizzas, yoghurts and biscuits, GDA/traffic lights had little impact on their decision-making.

“Most people could rank the three products correctly in terms of healthiness even if they were given only basic information,” Professor Klaus Grunert said. “It seems that liking, or intended or imagined use, are not correlated with use and impact on choices.”

Instead of worrying about providing as much information as possible on labels, more emphasis should be put on developing nutrition labels noticeable by consumers buying food under time pressure, Professor Grunert said.

Attention levels were an important - but often neglected - factor influencing the effectiveness of nutrition labels, and an on-pack health logo - labelling certain food products as a ‘healthy choice’ - as well as consistent labelling could help consumers make better decisions under time pressure, he said.

To this end, the FLABEL researchers developed and tested an “ideal baseline label format” (pictured), combining a health logo and basic nutrition information, which they said led to more consumers looking at nutrition information, particularly if the same label were used across all products.