The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has revealed that consumers have a low degree of what exactly words such as 'style' and 'selected' mean. In addition, the survey found that many consumers harbour a strong element of mistrust when it comes to taking labels on face value.
Scepticism was an overriding response to many common marketing terms. A significant proportion of respondents indicated a suspicion that all food products are produced by the same manufacturer but just packaged differently.
Consumers also demonstrated that while some felt quite strongly that food described by certain terms should not contain preservatives and other additives (quality (45 per cent), homemade (55 per cent), real (51 per cent)) in reality many thought 'these days' it was likely that they did.
The survey builds on FSA advice that was issued to food makers in July 2002 on the use of eight marketing terms used on food labels in the UK: fresh; pure; natural; traditional; original; authentic/real; home made and farmhouse.
The latest FSA study examined consumer understanding of five of the eight terms covered in the 2002 guidance (original, traditional, traditional style, homemade, real) and, in addition, eight additional terms (style, farmhouse pate, handmade, premium, finest, best, quality, selected).
Of the thirteen terms investigated, the FSA found that consumers considered quality, finest, handmade and original the four easiest phrases to understand in the context of food labelling.
In addition, a number of consumers said that they would be more likely to buy food products bearing the relevant terms. These terms were more likely to influence purchase decisions where two similar products were being compared.
This was particularly true of products bearing the terms 'quality', 'finest'and 'homemade'.
In overall terms, however, the research demonstrated that other pieces of information provided on the label are more influential. Nearly a third of people felt that the brand was the most important piece of information when making a purchase decision and a quarter (25 per cent) felt it was the ingredients.
Only 6 per cent of people claimed that the product descriptor, such as natural, fresh or pure, was the most important piece of information and only 14 per cent claimed to ever look at this on food packaging.
There were also few regional variations evident within the qualitative research, with some minor exceptions. Within northern locations for example, respondents recalled fresh meat more frequently than those in other regions.
Within areas such as Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast, 'traditional' was said to mean 'local', as opposed to old-fashioned', as found within the south-east of England. Groups within northern locations, that were also likely to be less urban, understood the term farmhouse when associated with pâté less easily.
All regional differences seen in the qualitative research have been indicated on the relevant charts in the full report.
The agency says that it will be using the latest research to inform its review of the 2002 guidance. Following consideration by the Agency, a new draft of the guidance will be subject to a full public consultation.
The report can be found on the FSA's homepage.