Nutritional Labels Aimed At Curbing Junk Food Consumption Prove Ineffective

While the USDA recently approved changes to nutritional labels, it may do little to curb obesity and unhealthy eating habits. Researchers led by Alessia Cavaliere at Universita degli Studi di Milano in Italy found that detailed nutritional panels are less likely to influence shoppers than health claims on the front of food packages. In particular, consumers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds with little concern for nutritional health are least likely to use the nutritional labels when making purchasing decisions.

“The detailed information reported on the nutrition facts panel is more likely used by consumers that already tend to engage in health-enhancing behaviors such as practicing physical activity,” the researchers said.

Despite efforts to make the nutritional facts more readable, quick claims such as “Fat Free” on the front of packages tend to have more influence on consumers’ purchasing habits. Studies have shown that claims of “low fat” or “diet” can actually influence people to eat more and often food manufacturers will add extra sugar to replace fat in fat-free food products – counteracting any health benefits.

With their prominent placement on the front of packages, front-of-pack health claims made by food companies have the advantage of catching consumers’ eyes. More easily readable and understood, these health claims contribute more to last minute purchases.

If the trend towards tougher restrictions on unhealthy food continues, it’s not without reason to expect more labeling regulations down the road.

“Therefore, this finding seems to strengthen the idea that the information conveyed by claims might be misled by consumers. This assumes particular importance considering that those consumers that are mostly interested in claims seem to have only scarce nutrition knowledge.”

Will Front-Facing Nutritional Labels Be The Future?

In Chile, the government is attempting to battle this issue by requiring octagonal black labels on the front of food packages high in certain nutritional factors. If a food exceeds 275 calories, 10 grams of sugar, 4 grams of saturated fat, or 400 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams, the packaging is required to reflect that information on the front packaging. Any food items with these black labels cannot be advertised to children under 14 as well.

“It takes less than a second to decide to buy something…the labels had to be something you could see in that short period of time,” says Lorena Rodriguez, head of the Department of Food and Nutrition.

Front-facing nutritional labels probably won’t be hitting U.S. shelves in the near future. Although minimal, the changes proposed by the USDA for the new nutritional labels received heavy pushback – especially from the sugar lobby concerning the added sugar line – so the idea of more in-your-face labeling on the front of packages seems farfetched. That being said, if the trend towards tougher restrictions on unhealthy food continues, it’s not without reason to expect more labeling regulations down the road.