August 26, 2014
The Food and Drug Administration’s proposed Nutrition Facts panel revision aims to highlight data such as serving size, calorie count and percent daily values so that shoppers can make educated purchasing decisions in the 10.5 seconds they spend scanning labels. Chris Hydock, a researcher with the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research, assessed the proposal’s effectiveness by asking study participants to rate the healthfulness of certain foods. Here, he shares how food labeling impacts health, and what the future of nutrition panels could look like.
NFM: Did participants find the proposed panel more helpful than the current one?
Chris Hydock: The new labels adopt a clearer design, which made them more helpful than the current labels under brief viewing times. The fact that the new design outweighed familiarity in the short viewing time suggests that, with enough experience, consumers will find the proposed labels more helpful under any condition. Some grocers and brands have adopted simplified food rating guidelines such as traffic lights.
NFM: Should healthy eating be reduced to symbols and colors?
CH: This is a tricky question. My intuition is that this is not a good idea. Nutrition information is complex, and our goal should be to increase consumer education rather than just simplifying labels. A more interesting question may be why many of the most healthy foods—fruits, vegetables and fresh butcher cuts—do not have nutrition label information and whether this fact makes consumers’ goals to eat well more difficult.
NFM: What’s your opinion of front-of-package label options?
CH: It would help to have labels on the front of packages. That would increase the likelihood that consumers consider nutrition information when making a purchase and hopefully steer them toward healthier options.
NFM: Shouldn’t food labeling strive to offer objective information to empower shoppers to make their own educated food decisions?
CH: While not optimal, food labeling is objective now; labels do give you an objective “serving size” and tell you objectively how many calories, etc., are in that serving. However, consumers are inherently a little bit lazy, myself included. We’re not going to sit down and calculate exactly how many calories are in the amount of food we eat if it doesn’t match the serving size on the label. Labels that include more realistic serving sizes will make consumers’ lives easier and hopefully help them make healthier choices. If anything, serving sizes that are smaller than what we know consumers actually eat are subliminally influencing them to eat more.
NFM: If you could design the ideal label, what would it add to (or omit from) the current Nutrition Facts panel?
CH: I like the FDA’s proposed changes, particularly its alternate proposed label that specifies which nutrition components to avoid and which to get enough of. I think it makes purchasing decisions as simple as possible without losing information the way symbol-based ratings can.
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