Does Clearer Labeling Change Food Choices?

We always talk about the importance of reading food labels. When you eat processed foods, you don't know what you're getting until you read the ingredient list and the nutritional facts. But, how much of a difference does clear labeling make to how we choose our food?

We've written in the past about not getting suckered by branding. Companies will make foods look better by putting cookies and treats in wholesome-looking packaging. We can easily fall into the trap of thinking we're making great choices if we don't take a look at the ingredients. But, sometimes, food will have nutritional information right on the front of the packaging. When it does, in theory, we should be able to make great choices. For years, researchers have wondered if it would help us make healthy changes in our diets.

The FDA does have requirements for nutritional labeling. Information does have to be listed on manufactured foods. But, currently, where most of that information is, is up to the company. That can make looking for it tricky as it varies from product to product. If it were on the front, formatted in a universal way, would it change how we consume food?

Some countries already have required clear, simple front-of-pack (FOP) labeling systems. That means that their citizens can compare things in an "apple-to-apples" way that we can't! It also prompts competing brands to become healthier when folks can easily see the differences at a glance. Now, a team of researchers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the U.S. looked at whether these labels actually change people's buying behavior. Their results support mandatory FOB labeling policies.

They looked at four different systems used in four countries. All of the systems were designed to help people quickly gauge how healthy the food is. They looked at the traffic light labeling system (TLS) and the Nutri-Score (NS) color-coded labeling system. They also studied the nutrient warning (NW) and health warning (HW) labeling systems.

They found that the TLS, NW and HW systems increased people's likelihood of buying healthy foods. The NS system lowered people's probability of buying unhealthy food. That's a subtle difference. But, the researchers said the TLS, NW and HW systems increased positive attitudes toward healthy choices. In contrast, the NS system did a good job of turning people off of junk food. This shows that putting it clearly and in color on the front of the box helped people.

What we like most about easy-to-read, color-coded FOP labels is that they give us choices. Some products already have FOP labels in the U.S., and our team reads them to make snap choices. Even different brands within the same — like breakfast cereal — will have a mix. Some brands list nutrition on the front of the box, while others do not. It doesn't limit what's on the shelves; it doesn't boss us about. But, it puts the power in the consumer's hands and gives us the information to make the best decisions for ourselves. Sometimes we want treats, and we want them to be available, but we don't want to feel hoodwinked. When you have all the information clearly and prominently listed, you can make your own choices without feeling like you've been manipulated. With that power, you can take healthy steps to maintain a healthy diet with less effort.

Banner image: Franki Chamaki via Unsplash

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