Nutrition labels need changing or campaigning to improve use, say researchers

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags American dietetic association Nutrition

Consumers who pay attention to nutrition labels are more likely to eat a healthy diet than those who do not, according to a new study, prompting researchers to recommend a shift in the way they are used.

The authors, writing in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, ​claim that rates of use need to be improved in order to ensure nutrition labels have an effect on eating habits; only 61.6 percent of the study’s nationally representative sample of US adults said they regularly checked the Nutrition Facts panel. Using data from the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), they also found that 51.6 percent looked at the ingredient list, 47.2 percent checked serving size, and 43.8 percent considered health claims at least sometimes when deciding whether to buy a food product.

The greatest nutrient differences between label users and non-label users were for total energy, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sugars; and users of on-pack health claims had lower reported values for total fat and saturated fat, the researchers found.

However, the study’s authors urged caution regarding to what extent use of nutritional information actually causes healthier eating.

“Despite food label use being associated with improved dietary factors, label use alone is not expected to be sufficient in modifying behavior ultimately leading to improved health outcomes,” ​they wrote.

Increasing use

Nevertheless, the authors concluded that rates of use need to be increased in order to have greater impact on public health.

“Low rates of label use also suggest that national campaigns or modification of the food label may be needed to reduce the proportion of the population not using this information,”​ they wrote.

“Possible changes to the current label that have been suggested include bolding calorie information, reporting the total nutrient intake for foods likely to be consumed in a single sitting, and using more intuitive labeling that requires less cognitive processing such as a red, yellow, and green ‘traffic light’ signs on the front of the label.”

Linguistic differences

The researchers also found that non-native English speakers were least likely to use nutritional information, although label use was seen to increase in line with foreign-born participants’ duration of residency.

“The food label alone is not expected to be sufficient in modifying behavior ultimately leading to improved health outcomes, but may be used by individuals and nutrition professionals as a valuable and motivating tool in our efforts to combat obesity and diet-related chronic disease,”​ they concluded.

Point of purchase pilot study

One possible way to increase consumer use of this information is to flag certain foods as healthier at the point of purchase. In a pilot study, also published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association,​ researchers monitored the food purchasing behavior of students during the middle of the fall 2008 semester at an urban university, and then tagged a range of healthier options with the Eat Smart program’s ‘Fuel Your Life’ logo. During the five-week period following the addition of these labels, the researchers found a 3.6 percent increase in sales of tagged items, although they underlined that this was not a statistically significant change.

Source: Journal of the American Dietetic Association

2010;110:1233-1237

“Food Label Use and Its Relation to Dietary Intake among US Adults”

Authors: Nicholas Jay Ollberding, Randi Wolf, Isobel Contento

Journal of the American Dietetic Association

2010;110:1222-1226

“Point-of-Purchase Nutrition Information Influences Food-Purchasing Behaviors of College Students: A Pilot Study”

Marjorie Freedman, Rachel Connors

Related topics R&D Food safety and labeling

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