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Front and center: Does FOP labeling actually help?

A new study looks at what consumers actually get from Front-of-Pack labels

April 16, 2014
KEYWORDS FOP labeling
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A front-of-pack lable on an M&M'S Chocolate Bar shows that it has 220 calories per serving.

Does front-of-package labeling actually help consumers? A new study says yes, especially for those who may need it the most.

Are you an ingredients reader? Well, if you read this column, most likely. Do you avoid high fructose corn syrup or sugar? Again, if you read this column, most likely not. Would you like to see front-of-package labeling? Now, that one is up for grabs. 

Editor-in-chief Bernie Pacyniak
Bernie Pacyniak

Personally, I wasn’t strongly for or against the idea. In the end, if it wasn’t that difficult for manufacturers to implement, why not? Anything that conveys nutritional information quicker is worth a shot.

I also realize that there are many instances where government-mandated or government-inspired regulations don’t produce the intended results (And no, I am not joining the Tea Party). But to be honest, based on my shopping habits, I wasn’t sure FOP labeling would have any impact. Seems I was wrong.

According to a Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics article co-authored by Marianne Smith Edge, senior v.p. for nutrition and food safety communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, “robust front-of-package labeling can significantly improve consumers’ ability to figure out and comprehend a food’s nutrition information, and to make informed choices about their purchases.

In addition, more abundant front-of-package labeling reduced consumers’ need to study the Nutrition Facts label.”

The article focuses on a 2010 study by the IFIC Foundation to examine consumer comprehension, ease of understanding, and interpretation of nutrition information in the uniformly formatted, voluntary front-of-package labeling system that was under consideration by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute.

In fact, this research was used to inform the framework for the Facts Up Front program, which is currently being implemented by the two groups.

And here’s the nitty gritty info about the survey taken from IFIC’s  press release. “The study involved 7,363 consumers examining products with four versions of a front-of-package label: 1) a control version with no nutrition information on the front of package, 2) one listing calories only, 3) one listing calories and nutrients to limit, and 4) one listing calories along with nutrients to limit or encourage. However, all participants also were allowed to consult the Nutrition Facts panel. (See diagram here.) Participants were required to have purchased and consumed, within the past three months, products from both food categories in one of two groups: breakfast cereals and frozen entrees, or salad dressings and savory snacks.

Participants were asked to identify nutrient amounts and percent daily values per serving in products, and to rate the ease of answering those identifying questions. They were then asked which product (one of three in each food category) they perceived was the best choice nutritionally.”

In general, the more nutrition information on the front of a package, the better consumers were at identifying and comprehending nutritional attributes of the food.

But this is what’s really interesting. “…those with the lowest education level (some high school or less) showed proportionately higher gains in identification of nutrients and percent daily values, helping close the gap between those who better understand labels and those of lower education levels.”

The survey also pointed to the importance of robust front-of-package information to those with lower incomes. While those with a household income under $35,000 comprised 36 percent of survey participants, they comprised nearly half (48 percent) of all those who said they rarely or never used labels for purchasing decisions. Overall, 86 percent of survey respondents said they read a product’s Nutrition Facts label regularly or occasionally when purchasing it for the first time.

 “Our research indicates that a well-designed and widely available front-of-package labeling system can help dietetics professionals provide sound advice and contribute to positive health outcomes, particularly among those with lower education levels,” Smith Edge said. “But to be the most effective, such a system should be accompanied by an education campaign, along with monitoring and evaluation to gauge its real-world impacts.”

Convinced me. 

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