The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Front of Pack Labeling

Front of Pack Labeling

Shoppers and Trends

February 27, 2011

Increasing the amount of nutrition information on the front of a package strengthens consumers’ understanding on the topic, according to recent research from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation. Their study, supported by a grant from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), on Front-of-Pack (FOP) Labeling looked at 7,400 consumers in the Fall of 2010 in order to quantitatively assess consumers’ ability to find relevant nutrition information on the front of packages.

In order to understand consumers’ interpretation of FOP nutrition information, the research tested three FOP systems against a control with no FOP messages. The three systems included calories only, calories plus three nutrients to limit (saturated fat, sodium, total sugars), and calories plus three nutrients to limit plus three nutrients to encourage (protein, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber, or folate). Nutrition Facts Panels (NFP) were also included on the back of the packages.

In general, when relevant information appeared on the front of the package, consumers were more able to accurately find and state nutritional content. Consumers provided with the calories plus nutrients to limit plus nutrients to encourage labels were more likely to agree that FOP information aided with decision making and understanding. Along those same lines, fewer consumers were able to find and state nutrients to encourage when only the calories plus nutrients to limit label appeared on the package.

Interestingly, when consumers have extensive FOP nutrition information, they are less likely to view the NFP. In categories with more complex NFP, consumers with higher levels of formal education displayed ease of understanding. In fact, across all education levels, consumers demonstrated higher comprehension when presented with more FOP nutritional information.

Older respondents (50-70) were less trusting of FOP information and more likely to seek out NFP information as an alternative. Meanwhile, when it comes to ethnicity, shoppers who are not White and Non-Hispanic are less likely to say that FOP nutrition information is lacking in important information – perhaps owing to possible disparities in education. Even so, more FOP information continues to improve correct answer scores in nutritional interpretation – with lower education levels benefitting the most.

“Consumer education is critical to the success of FOP in being a solution to solving the obesity problem in the U.S. From the IFIC Foundation research, we know that consumers do not understand calories. Overall, we must be able to help consumers understand what the numbers/serving mean and how to use the FOP in making the best choices for their particular lifestyle and disease state,” says Marianne Smith Edge, Senior Vice President, International Food Information Council Foundation.

Half of respondents in this study say they read food labels to compare nutritional values, 35% occasionally read them, 12% rarely them and 3% never read them. The number of those that read labels regularly jumps to 59% when buying a food for the first time. The extent of label usage is associated with greater ease in comparing nutritional content. However, at times fewer consumers were able to find and state positive nutritional content when the nutrients to encourage category was left off FOP.

This study suggests that labeling systems could play an important role in consumer understanding of nutritional information, but more research is needed to determine potential new approaches to food labeling. Based on these findings, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute announced earlier this year that their manufacturing and retail members will launch the “Nutrition Keys” voluntary labeling system along with an extensive consumer education campaign to help consumers make more informed choices on the foods that they include in their diets.

“Only time will tell whether this labeling system will truly impact the quality of our diets and enhance our health. But at least we know from the IFIC Foundation research that when given the right information in the right “portions” consumers can make better choices. When we don’t make better choices, even though we know better, it indicates other factors that impact motivation and behavior are part of the equation,” says Smith Edge.