Can Food Labels Influence Food Choices?

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Do color-coded food labels, such as this Nutri-Score label, influence food choices? Alliance Jörg Carstensen / photo via Getty Images
  • A diet high in salt, sugar and saturated fat and low in whole grains is a major risk factor for noncommunicable diseases.
  • A recent systematic review suggests that color-coded nutritional food labels and warnings on food packaging correlate with healthier food choices.
  • Researchers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States believe their study supports mandatory front-of-package labeling policies.

Diets high in non-nutritious foods increase the risk of noncommunicable diseases, which represent 71% of deaths worldwide.

Color coded labels and warning labels are commonly used on the front of food packaging around the world. They aim to encourage people to eat healthier in order to reduce the burden of food-related illness and death.

Prior to this study, it was not clear whether these labels effectively influence consumer purchases.

Song Jing, Mhairi Brown and colleagues at Queen Mary University in London in the UK explored the evidence with researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia, the University of Calgary in Canada, the University of Auckland in New Zealand and Resolve to save lives in the USA.

Their findings appear in PLOS Medicine.

To quantify the effects of front-of-package labeling, the authors reviewed data from 134 peer-reviewed studies published between January 1990 and May 2021.

They used the network meta-analysis method summarize the results of these studies.

This approach helped the team assess the effects of traffic light labeling system (TLS) and the Nutri-Score (NS) color coded labeling system. The researchers also examined the impact of the Nutrient Warning (NW) and Health Warning (HW) labeling systems.

The authors specify:

“The main results of our systematic review were measures of changes in consumer buying and consumption behavior, which contain the likelihood of choosing less healthy or healthier products, self-reported ratings of purchase intention , the overall safety of the products purchased and the energy and nutrient […] content of products purchased / consumed.

The study authors report: “We found that TLS, NW, and HW were associated with an increased likelihood of selecting healthier products. “

NS and warning labels appeared to help reduce the likelihood of consumers buying “less healthy products”.

Song and his fellow researchers believe the TLS, NW, and HW labels have affected shopping behavior by clarifying nutritional information. In this way, they promoted “positive attitudes towards healthy foods” and negative attitudes towards less nutritious products.

Color-coded labels had a more significant effect in terms of shoppers’ influence to buy healthy foods. Conversely, warning labels seemed to have a greater deterrent effect on unhealthy purchases.

According to the authors, their study supports “mandatory front-of-package labeling policies by guiding consumer choice and encouraging the food industry to reformulate their products.”

Song and his colleagues cite several limitations to their study. For example, they recognize differences in the type, format, and position of labels, as well as variations in study populations and experimental parameters across studies reviewed.

Most of the research papers they reviewed were lab studies, so actual data on food consumption was limited. The team also admitted a “lack of long-term impact evaluations”.

Medical News Today demand Dr Mir Ali, MD, a bariatric surgeon and the medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., whether food labels really influence shopping behavior.

The surgeon agrees with the study results that color coding and warnings make the difference:

“I think if people are more aware of the health benefits or harms of a particular food or product, then [labels] can steer them more towards a healthy product.

However, Dr Ali felt that the current labeling system in the United States “is unable” to provide clear and accurate nutritional information.

For example, some food manufacturers list chemical names for sugars, which might lead some people to believe a product is sugar free.

Dr Ali added:

“I think people have this impression that if something is labeled ‘healthy’ it has to be healthy or organic or outdoor. […] – some of the buzzwords. So they often look at that and say, “OK, I’m eating healthy”. They don’t look at the actual calorie content or composition of what they eat, whether it is high in fat or cholesterol, or other things that may not be in their best interest.

As a bariatric surgeon and weight loss specialist, Dr Ali advises his patients to eat well after surgery.

He suggests that the labels include the recommended consumption limits: “[Labels could say] this food falls into this category, and you should only have that amount or limit that amount per day. Or, that food is in the “green zone” where you don’t have to limit how much you eat. [of] that in one day.

However, Dr Ali recognizes that people mainly buy what they want, healthy or not.

In addition, he shares: “There is a lot of controversy [about] what is a good diet […]. There are a lot of different opinions, especially for children.

Noël Anderson, Ph.D., is the president of Institute of Food Technologists, a scientific community for food professionals.

In a podcast with FoodNavigator-USA, he comments that many buyers lack clarity on what healthy eating is:

“I don’t think there is a deep understanding of what healthy eating really means to the ordinary consumer. Research has clearly shown that consumers are more aware and say they want to eat healthy, but for too many of them, eating healthy just means fresh, but nothing bad. It’s a pretty narrow definition.

Dr Anderson continued, “Plus, when you look at their behaviors, […] gluttony stimulates purchases […]. “

Dr Ali believes that creating clearer labels is “a good step in the right direction”. Ultimately, however, individuals should take responsibility for educating themselves and choosing foods for their health.

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