The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

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

Food Label Use and Diet

Food Label Use and Diet

Health and Wellness

August 29, 2010

Much has been written about the effectiveness of food labels and the likelihood that they should be improved, especially in light of the current obesity epidemic. A lack of current data on how consumers actually use labels, however, prompted researchers at Columbia University to examine their potential influence as a public health tool. 

Data on food label use was collected from a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults who participated in the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. In this sample, 61.6% reported using the Nutrition Facts Panel, 51.6% used the list of ingredients, 47.2% looked at serving size, and 43.8% looked at health claims. Label use was highest among non-Hispanic whites, white women, those with higher income, and those with greater levels education. Participants with limited English skills had reduced rates of label use.

Impact on mean nutrient intake and healthier nutrient consumption differed considerably between label users and non-users. The greatest differences were found for total energy and fat consumption, with label users reporting lower values of both. In addition, dietary fiber intake was higher among label users for all sections of the food label. Among those using serving size, label use resulted in lower values for total energy, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sugars. Ingredient list users had lower reported values for sodium; Nutrition Facts panel users had lower reported values for sugars.

Interestingly, though an increased use of food labels certainly resulted in improved nutrient intake, the variance in nutrient intake explained by food label use alone was actually quite small (0% to 1.99%). Still, the mean differences between users and non-users for several nutrients were significant enough to suggest the importance of labels, and consumer understanding of them. 

“While in our statistical models we could only attribute a portion of the differences in mean nutrient intake to food label use, individuals who reported using the food label to inform their food purchasing decisions did on average report healthier dietary intakes for several nutrients. Thus while differences could in part be due to unaccounted for differences between food label users and non-users, these associations are still of public health relevance,” says Dr. Nicholas Ollberding, study co-author.

Food labels were standardized in 1994, four years after the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. The goal of standardizing labels was (and still is intended to) combat obesity and diet-related chronic diseases by helping consumers best choose healthier foods. But past research has indicated that label use is on the decline. In fact, a USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) study found that between the years 1996 and 2005, label use declined by approximately three percentage points for the Nutrition Facts panel, 11 percentage points for the ingredient list, and 10 percentage points for information on calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium.

Researchers from this study say that to have a greater influence on public health, food label use needs to increase. Dietetics educators and retailers have a role to play in increasing label awareness among consumers, and a better understanding of how the labels work is needed as well. To this end, redesigns have been suggested to make labeling more intuitive. For example, possible changes include using boldface type for energy information and using a red, yellow and green “traffic light” sign on the front of the label.

Overall, the food label alone cannot be expected to modify behavior, says Ollberding, yet it can be a helpful tool in motivating consumers in the fight against obesity and other diet-related diseases.

“Ultimately, the food label is a tool that can assist individuals at the point-of-purchase to make healthier food choices. In as much as individuals make choices based on that information, such as to consume a lower calorie food item in place of a higher calorie food item, the food label may assist in modifying dietary behaviors,” says Ollberding.