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Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.
How heavily do FOP labels influence consumer purchasing habits, and how can we ensure that messages aren't confusing?
Nutrition labels play a key role in helping consumers make appropriate food choices-that is, if consumers can understand those labels. That’s why the U.S. FDA announced earlier this year it’s looking to revise the Nutrition Facts label to make it consumer friendlier. But what about front-of-package labeling and other means of conveying nutrition information? How heavily do these influence consumer purchasing habits, and how can we ensure that messages are clear and not confusing?
Earlier this year, the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published an article discussing what kind of front-of-package (FOP) labeling system can best improve consumers’ ability to determine a food’s nutrition value. The article highlighted data from a 2010 study conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, which tested various FOP labeling designs on 7,363 consumers.
The study asked participants to look at four different packages, each featuring a nutrition facts panel as well as a unique FOP label: 1) a control version without any nutrition information on the FOP, 2) an FOP listing calories only, 3) an FOP listing calories plus nutrients to limit, and 4) an FOP listing calories, nutrients to limit, as well as nutrients to encourage. After looking at these labels, participants were asked to identify the nutrient amounts and percent daily values per serving in each product, rate the ease at which they were able to answer those questions, and pick which product was the best choice nutritionally.
According to researchers, label version four-the one listing calories, nutrients to limit, and nutrients to encourage-scored highest as the easiest to understand and use and was rated as more believable and trustworthy. The IFIC study also found that more information provided on the FOP reduced the participants’ need to study the Nutrition Facts label.
“In general, the more nutrition information on the front of the package, the better consumers were at identifying and comprehending nutritional attributes of the food,” IFIC stated in a press release. Notably, IFIC added, consumers with the lowest education levels (high school or less) were better able to understand FOP labeling and to glean nutrient information when more information was provided, not less.
The IFIC study data is the framework for the Facts Up Front FOP labeling program developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute and supported by a number of food corporations. Based on the data from the IFIC study, the Facts Up Front system lists the following information on the FOP: calories, saturated fat, sodium, sugar, potassium, and vitamin A-essentially, highlighting specific nutrients also featured on the Nutrition Facts label.
“In our FOP research, consumers were able to identify the product of higher nutritional value by reading the ‘facts’ versus proprietary symbols or rankings,” adds Marianne Smith Edge, MS, RD, LD, FADA, IFIC’s senior vice president of nutrition and food safety, who coauthored the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics article.
Sue Till, client services manager for nutrition-rating program Guiding Stars, has a different viewpoint on whether a graphics-based ratings system can work to convey food nutrition information. The Guiding Stars system uses star symbols to denote the healthfulness of a food, using an algorithm that was developed based on the Nutrition Facts label nutrients. (Three stars indicate the healthiest foods.) Till calls the system a “quick, at-a-glance rating for the healthfulness of a food.” With Guiding Stars, she says, “you have an advocate that helps you make sense of all the noise out there and make healthier decisions at a glance.”
Guiding Stars says it stands out because its ratings system is not influenced by price, brand, or manufacturer trade groups; instead of recommending specific products to consumers, Guiding Stars ratings generally do not appear on packages, but rather on store shelves. On-shelf displays encourage customers to seek out foods high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and whole grains and fewer foods high in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sodium, and added sugar. A number of grocery retailers, school cafeterias, and hospitals have already adopted the system.
Till says that an on-shelf program like Guiding Stars may also work hand-in-hand with on-package labeling. A few supermarkets do feature Guiding Stars ratings both on packaging and store shelves. “Guiding Stars, while typically available on shelf, does appear on the label of private-brand products sold at Food Lion and Hannaford supermarkets,” she says. “It’s reinforcing to have the stars in both places and works very well.”
The U.S. Institute of Medicine issued recommendations for FOP labeling back in 2011, but FDA has not said whether it plans to implement a federal FOP labeling system. IFIC’s Smith Edge says that if plans for an FOP labeling system are on the agency’s agenda, the timeline is still unknown.
But the consensus is that more consumers are seeking healthier foods and can benefit from FOP labeling that works well. IFIC’s 2014 Food and Health Survey data show that 71% of consumers say they are now increasingly focusing on healthfulness when buying food, versus 64% of participants who said the same in 2013. “Therefore, it’s important to include nutrients to encourage and limit on the front of the package,” Smith Edge says.
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