With the rise of the health-conscious consumer and the clean label movement, food labels are more impactful than ever before. A new study assessed the effectiveness of multiple food labels, finding that nutritional information on product packaging has positive effects on consumption of certain nutrients, but not others.
The report led by researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, looked at the effects of various forms of nutritional information on food labeling in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Asia. This research included the Nutrition Facts panel used in the US, as well as claims like “low sodium” and “fat-free.”
“Many old and new food policies focus on labeling, whether on food packages or restaurant menus. Remarkably, the effectiveness of these labels, whether for changing consumers’ choices or industry product formulations, has not been clear,” said senior and corresponding author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Friedman School.
The research found that labeling reduced consumers’ intake of calories by 6.6 percent, total fat by 10.6 percent and consumption of other unhealthy food options by 13 percent. Labeling also increased consumers’ vegetable consumption by 13.5 percent.
“Our findings provide new evidence on what might work, and what might not, when implementing food labeling,” Mozaffarian added.
On the other hand, labeling did not significantly impact consumer intakes of other targets such as total carbohydrate, total protein, saturated fat, fruits, whole grains or other healthy options.
When industry responses were evaluated, the team found that labeling led to reductions of both trans-fat and sodium in packaged foods by 64.3 percent and 8.9 percent, respectively.
“For industry responses, it’s interesting that the two altered components – trans-fat and sodium – are additives,” said Mozaffarian.
However, no significant effects of labeling were identified for industry formulations of total calories, saturated fat, dietary fibre, other healthy components (e.g., protein and unsaturated fat), or other unhealthy components (e.g., total fat, sugar, and dietary cholesterol), although relatively few studies evaluated these endpoints.
“This suggests that industry may be more readily able to alter additives, as opposed to naturally occurring ingredients such as fat or calories, in response to labeling. It will be interesting to see whether this will translate to added sugar,” he noted.
Further, the team found no consistent differential effects by label placements (menu, package, other point-of-purchase), and label types (e.g. nutrient content), suggesting information may be more relevant to consumers compared to how it’s presented.