Which Simplified Nutrition Label Works Best for Consumers?

Different nutrition label schemesThe CDC last week published the findings of an online consumer survey recently conducted to learn what Front of Pack (FOP) nutrition labeling system is most understandable. 480 people had to select one of five choices as most elucidating:

  1. no label
  2. multiple traffic light (MTL)- shows red, yellow, green for each of important nutrients such as: saturated fat, sodium, sugars…
  3. MTL plus daily caloric requirement icon (MTL+caloric intake)
  4. traffic light with specific nutrients to limit based on food category (TL+SNL)
  5. the Choices logo – a simple check mark stating that the food is healthy, based on criteria specified by an independent third party.

(Too bad the Fooducate grading system wasn’t included ;-)

The response from consumers was that two options were most helpful – MTL with calorie icon, and the uber-simple “Choices” logo.

What you need to know:

Choices is a program that’s been running in some European nations for a few years now. The program was created by Unilever, one of the world’s largest food companies. The benchmark nutrient levels for each product category are determined by an independent panel of nutrition scientists and published on the Choices website. But because of its lineage, the program has not been accepted by all manufacturers.

Traffic light labeling systems are in use in the UK, where all the major supermarket chains and brands are including the colorful labels on products.

In the US, neither of the above systems has caught on, but we certainly have had our share of attempts in the past. Most memorable is the failed Smart Choices program, whose poster child healthy food was Froot Loops.

The most recent program is by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a trade group representing the largest food manufacturers. The group is trying to preempt unfavorable government regulation by suggesting its very own labeling scheme called Facts up Front.

Note there is no color coding here – no RED markings to scare off consumers.

The FDA is considering mandating a Front of Pack labeling system sometime in the near future. That’s why manufactures are scrambling to introduce something they can show as beneficial, thus thwarting government intervention.

One might ask – why do we even need FOP labels, given that we already have a nutrition facts panel and an ingredient list?

The answer is quite simple. Or complicated, depending on your approach. People simply don’t understand the complex information in a nutrition label. And most of us are totally clueless when it comes to ingredient lists. What exactly are phosphoric acid, soy lecithin, and azodicarbonamide?

The major problem with all nutrition labeling systems printed on product packages is that they require manufacturers to play along. And food makers will only play along if they believe their sales can grow, or at very least not hurt. Make the info usable to consumers, chances are they will shy away from products that have red markings on some of their nutrients. That’s a very scary notion for food companies.

What To Do at the Supermarket:
Sometimes simple is not good enough. Your best bet is to read the nutrition label AND the ingredient list of a product. Only this will provide you with a full nutrition picture.
Of course, You can always used a trusted third party app/website to scan a product’s barcode and get the most pertinent details to make your decision…
  • http://twitter.com/ccf_ideas CCF Ideas

    Interesting thoughts about what works for the CONSUMER versus the RETAILER. I recently wrote a blog post about the importance and the limitations of certifications and labels on eco-products, which I think you might find of interest: http://ow.ly/eR0N5