Food labels are integral to informing consumers about just what they are eating. Deakin Master of Human Nutrition student Amy Forbes sets out to answer the question of if food labels help people actually eat healthier.
Did you know that five of the six principle risk factors for ill health are associated with poor nutrition, and that diet is estimated to account for approximately 30% of cancers in industrialised countries, making it the second largest modifiable risk factor after tobacco? Furthermore, the increase in overweight and obesity and related illnesses places a significant burden on the public health system, particularly in Westernised countries. To some extent, these diseases can be mitigated by healthy diets.
Nutrition labels, in their various forms, have been implemented by governments worldwide as a popular policy tool to encourage healthy dietary practices and to reduce the risk of diet related disease. There are a range of labels, including: the nutrition fact panel on the back of packs which detail macro- and micro-nutrient information per serving and per 100 grams, health symbols and traffic light symbols.
In Australia, nutrition fact panels are mandatory on all pre packaged food, while health symbols such as the Heart Foundation Tick of Approval are optional, should the manufacturer want to satisfy a strict set of criteria and rigorous testing.
In late 2012, the Australian Government rejected recommendations for front of pack traffic light symbols. However, just because nutrition labels are present, doesn’t mean consumers read them. And if they are reading labels, this doesn’t necessarily translate into healthful dietary practices. So why is it that with the availability of information, consumers don’t always make the most healthful decisions?
Researchers have determined a number of factors including demographics, the type of label and product, which influence whether a consumer’s behaviour. The use of nutrition labels has been found to be most common amongst women, older people, and those with higher education.
Researchers have also explored the importance of goals and motivation in reading labels and employing healthy dietary practises. One such study conducted in the US found that people who were taking steps to lose weight were three times more likely to read labels and seek specific dietary information. Not surprisingly consumers who had never smoked, had high cholesterol or who had a general interest in health were also more likely to read labels.
Different food products have also been associated with increased label use. A UK study found that frequency of using labels was highest for yoghurt, followed by breakfast cereals, ready meals, soft drinks, salty snacks and confectionery amongst consumers in the UK. The same study also reported that consumers were most likely to look for information relating to fat, followed by sugar, calories, salt, saturates and additives.
But which are the most effective forms of labels in encouraging people to eat healthier? Researchers have reported mixed results, which can partially be attributed to the type of consumer. However, there is widespread consensus that consumers prefer front of pack labels that are credible and easy to understand.
A randomised control trial conducted in Germany found that participants who used traffic light symbols were more likely to answer questions correctly relating to healthier food items, compared to other label formats. A number of intervention studies have been conducted in the US to determine if labels do actually result in healthier food choices. Interventions in restaurants, cafeterias, grocery stores and worksites as well as a number of large surveys have generally found that labelling encourages consumers to choose healthier alternatives.
However, nutrition labels are unlikely to serve as a successful strategy alone in combating obesity and improving dietary practises amongst consumers. Labelling serves as a small contributor to a complex public health strategy. Labels are only present on pre-packaged foods, making it impossible for consumers to obtain nutritional information on pre-prepared or unpackaged foods.
Many consumers report lack of time, motivation, understanding, and concerns about the validity of information. As such, there is much to be done to educate consumers about nutrition and to improve the efficacy of existing labels and introduce new solutions.