Researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University have released a new study on the influence of food and beverage labeling on consumer eating behaviors. The study examined the effectiveness of several labeling practices developed over the past few decades, which were created to promote healthier consumption habits, such as:
- The U.S. Nutrition Facts Panel featured on all packaged foods
- Calorie counts printed on product labels and restaurant menus
- Identifiers that flag certain foods as "low-sodium" and "fat-free"
- Front-of-pack descriptions that encourage healthier eating
In total, the research team reviewed 60 interventional studies published between 1990 and 2014, which included over two million unique observations about consumer dietary intakes and product purchases. The goal of the study was to identify the overall effects that food labeling techniques have had on consumer and industry behavior, examining labels such as those used on product packages, menus and point-of-purchase materials.
The findings suggest that labeling reduces the general public's dietary intake of certain nutrients, which in turn influences food manufacturer to use fewer ingredients linked to high sodium and artificial trans fats. More specifically, the study found that food labeling led to:
- A reduction of calorie consumption by 6.6 percent
- A decrease in total fat consumption by 10.6 percent
- A cutback in unhealthy food options by 13 percent
- An increase in vegetable consumption by 13.5 percent
Despite these clear benefits, researchers found that labeling did not positively or negatively impact consumers' intake of carbohydrates, saturated fats, whole grains, protein or healthy food options. Additionally, the study revealed that food labeling techniques have a variable effect on the behavior of some consumers and industries, making universal predictions difficult on the individual level.
"Many old and new food policies focus on labeling, whether on food packages or restaurant menus," said Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School, in an interview with TuftsNow. "Our findings provide new evidence on what might work, and what might not, when implementing food labeling."
One of the study's more remarkable outcomes was the realization that label type and placement produced no consistent differential effects between products. Instead, researchers concluded that the presence or absence of information on a product's label is more relevant to consumer behavior than any stylistic choice.