Christopher Hydock

June 12, 2014

5 Min Read
Will new nutrition labels on food packaging help consumers?
Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research conducted a study evaluating consumer perceptions of current nutrition labels compared to the FDA proposed and alternate labels.

With more than one-third of U.S. adults qualifying as obese and the estimated medical costs related to obesity in the U.S. in the multi-billion dollar range, many federal organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have made efforts to reduce the rates of obesity.*

Most recently, though, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed changing the Nutrition Facts labels on food packaging in the hopes of encouraging healthier dietary decisions. The new labels are intended to present information in a way that allows consumers to make positive and informed decisions more easily and readily by making the most important dietary information more prominent and clearer.  

To evaluate the effectiveness of the new labels and the likelihood of the FDAs goal in influencing consumer decisions being realized, the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research conducted a study evaluating consumer perceptions of current nutrition labels compared to the FDA proposed and alternate labels.

To start, what changes is the FDA proposing? First, the proposed labels would have calories and number of servings/serving sizes presented in a much bolder, larger typeface to make them more obvious to consumers. On top of this, serving sizes would be adjusted to more accurately reflect what people eat rather than what is recommended. Moreover, while trans-fat and saturated fat will still be required, calories from fat would be removed, as the type of fat is generally more important. Finally, Daily Values would be updated, Percent Daily Value (%DV) would be shifted to the left, and amounts of potassium and Vitamin D would be required on all labels. The FDA also offered an alternative label that presents the same changes in a similar fashion.

Accordingly, the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research conducted a study consisting of 570 participants to investigate how consumers would perceive these changes and the new layout. The study went as follows: Participants were presented with three food items: a 20-oz bottle of soda, a frozen pizza and an 8-oz bag of chips. Consumers were presented with a picture of each product followed by a picture of its nutritional facts label. Rather than view all three labels, consumers were presented with the current label, the proposed label or the alternative label. The labels also presented nutritional information for current serving size values orthe nutritional information for 1.5 times the existing serving size to reflect FDA suggestions for presenting more accurate serving sizes. Finally, the nutrition labels were presented for either 10 seconds or an unlimited amount of time. Consumers were then asked a series of questions to evaluate how healthy they perceived the food products to be and how informative or helpful they found the labels.

The results of the study indicate that consumers viewed labels depicting larger serving sizes as less healthy. Furthermore, for two of the three products—the frozen pizza and 8-oz bag of chips—consumers found larger serving sizes as more accurate. The exception to this finding was the 20-oz soda bottle. It is possible that because the adjusted serving size was 12-oz, consumers still found it as equally inaccurate as the current serving size (8 oz) because consumers perceive an entire bottle (20 oz) to be an accurate single serving. Consumers found the proposed label and alternative label more helpful when allowed only a brief, 10-second view too. But, when given an unlimited time to look at the label, consumers found the original label to be more helpful than the proposed and alternative labels.       

These findings are important in terms of the FDA’s goals with the proposed nutrition labels for a number of reasons.

First, the results showing that larger serving sizes are perceived as less healthy is consistent with the FDA’s goals in increasing the accuracy of perceptions of certain foods that can be misleading with smaller serving sizes listed, such as chips, frozen pizza or soda.

Second, the fact that consumers found proposed and alternative labels more helpful when given a brief, 10-second view is important because this time frame accurately reflects the approximate amount of time a person would typically spend looking at a nutrition label while shopping.

In fact, an independent pilot study revealed that the median time spent looking at a nutrition label in a store is about 10.5 seconds. Thus, the proposed and alternative labels appear to be more helpful in a real-life setting and require less careful consideration or analysis. Finally, the findings that larger serving sizes were seen as more accurate is consistent with the FDA’s hopes in making this adjustment.

Therefore, the study by the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research demonstrates that the FDA proposed and alternate nutrition labels are perceived differently by consumers compared to current labels. Moreover, it appears as though the changes in serving sizes will satisfy the FDA’s goals of increasing the accuracy and perceived healthiness, or unhealthiness, of foods.

Likewise, the fact that consumers found the proposed and alternative labels as more helpful when only allowed a brief viewing reflects the FDAs goal of prominently displaying the most important nutrition information on the labels for quick reference and evaluation.

Thus, according to this research, the FDA’s proposed changes to nutrition labels on food packages do have the potential to increase consumers’ ability to make healthier and more informed dietary decisions.

This article was written by Chris Hydock and Anne Wilson.

Chris Hydock is a Researcher with the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research.  He earned a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the Psychology Department at George Washington University and BA in Psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

Anne Wilson is a Research Associate and Communications Coordinator for the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research. In addition to conducting and contributing to research on consumer behavior, Anne is responsible for all marketing functions of the Institute including website management and social media engagement.

 

* Ogden, C. L., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B. K., Flegal, K. M. (2014). Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 311:8. 806-814.

* Finkelstein, E. A., Trogdon, J. G., Cohen, J. W., Dietz, W. (2009). Annual medical spending attributable to obesity: payer-and service-specific estimates. Health Affairs, 28:5. 822-831.

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