Color coded front-of-pack nutrition information may improve consumer understanding of labels and foods’ nutritional value, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
In the United States, the White House Childhood Obesity Task Force identified in 2010 a need for uniform front-of-pack nutrition information to help consumers make healthier choices, rather than the wide array of different symbols and systems currently in use. However, before the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued its final report on the development of a science-based approach to FOP labeling, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) introduced their own ‘Facts Up Front’ system, which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has since said it would support .
Researchers in this latest study, led by Christina Roberto of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, aimed to test consumer understanding of the Facts Up Front label compared to the Traffic Light system, which uses green, red and yellow circles to alert consumers to the different amounts of calories, sugar, saturated fat and salt in foods. Facts Up Front also alerts consumers to these attributes – with %DV (daily value) rather than color coding – and also allows a ‘Facts Up Front+’ option to highlight up to two ‘nutrients to encourage’.
Nutrient ‘plus’ options
In a randomized controlled trial, the researchers added a ‘Traffic Light+’ option, which added two positive nutrients to the Traffic Light label, in an effort to determine if this would aid consumers in choosing healthier options.
They found that the Traffic Light+ and Facts Up Front labeling systems helped people accurately compare two products’ levels of various nutrients. Facts Up Front was most helpful for comparing products only on sugar, saturated fat, and sodium, and both ‘plus’ versions performed equally well when individuals compared products based on protein and fiber.
“In contrast, when participants judged the levels of specific nutrients in individual products, both versions of the Traffic Light labels were substantially more helpful than the Facts Up Front labels,” the study’s authors wrote.
“The average score for those in the Traffic Light+ group was ≥90% on all individual nutrient quizzes compared to average scores for the Facts Up Front groups, which ranged from 47% to 72% for all but the calories-per-serving estimation quiz. As expected, when protein and fiber appeared on the label, people were also better able to estimate the levels of these nutrients.”
They added that it was concerning that the Facts Up Front system allows companies to select which ‘nutrients to encourage’ to highlight, meaning “less-healthy products can appear to be healthier through highlighting of specific vitamins.”
“An additional concern is that individuals in the current study who viewed the Facts Up Front labels were more likely to underestimate saturated fat and sugars and overestimate fiber and protein amounts in products.”
The researchers concluded that further research should be conducted in real-world setting, and wrote:
“The results suggest that the Facts Up Front labeling system could be improved by using a color-coded traffic light scheme with High/Med/Low text, rather than % DV information to best educate the public about nutrition.”
Source: American Journal of Preventive Medicine
Volume 43, Issue 2 , Pages 134-141 , August 2012
Authors: Christina A. Roberto, Marie A. Bragg, Marlene B. Schwartz, Marissa J. Seamans, Aviva Musicus, Nicole Novak, Kelly D. Brownell.