Food Labeling and Messaging

Sugary Drink Warning Labels

In a new PEACH lab study led by Dr. Roberto, we found that health warning labels may influence parents to purchase fewer sugary drinks for their children and may be an impactful way to educate parents about the health harms of over consuming sugary drinks. More than half of children under the age of 11 drink sugary drinks including soft drinks and juices that contain as many as seven teaspoons of sugar per 6.5 ounces—on a daily basis.

Healthy Eating ResearchWith growing concerns about the health effects associated with consumption of these beverages, some states have introduced bills requiring sugary drinks to display health warning labels. This study provides some of the first data examining the potential influence of sugary drink warning labels.

We conducted an online survey of 2,381 demographically diverse parents with at least one child between six and 11 years old. Parents were divided into one of six groups—a control group, which saw no warning label on beverages, a “calorie label” group which only saw a label displaying the beverage’s calorie count, and four “warning label” groups, which saw one of four different labels warning about possible negative health consequences such as obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay—and asked to choose a beverage to purchase for their child.

While the different variations of the health warning labels did not differentially affect parents’ drink decisions, the presence of the label was significant.

Regardless of education level, parents were significantly less likely to report choosing a sugary drink for their child when a warning label was present compared to a calorie count label or no label at all. Additional results suggest health warning labels improve parents’ understanding of the health dangers associated with overconsumption of sugary drinks and also found that nearly 75 percent of participants would support adding sugary drink warning labels to beverage containers.

Overall, the study results show that warning labels have the potential to educate parents and motivate behavior change in terms of purchasing sugary drinks. Ultimately, whether health warning labels reduce the actual purchase and consumption of sugary drinks will be determined in real-world settings where such policies are enacted and enforced.

The study is published online in the journal Pediatrics. Funding for the study was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Menu Labeling

Menu labeling is a national policy that requires chain restaurants to post calorie information on their menus and menu boards. The goal of menu labeling is to inform consumers, encourage people to make healthier choices when dining out, and to encourage the restaurant industry to offer a range of healthier options.

Several studies have been conducted in cities that have already implemented menu labeling. In a recent review paper we examined and summarized all the studies that have evaluated menu labeling in the real-world. We concluded that the evidence of calorie labeling’s impact on consumer purchases is mixed so far. It seems to encourage some consumers, some of the time, at some restaurants to order fewer calories.

When menu labeling was first proposed in 2006 in New York City, there was little established data on what the impact of menu labeling would be, so we conducted several studies to answer policy questions and address restaurant industry concerns. At the time, the food industry argued that nutrition information was already available in restaurants; labeling was unnecessary. But our research revealed that only 6 out of 4,311 people looked for nutrition information in restaurants, suggesting that the existing approach to sharing information was ineffective.

In a separate study we then demonstrated that, after viewing menus with calorie counts, adults both ordered and ate less. However, there was an important influence of providing people with contextual information to understand the calorie amounts. A menu containing a label that adults should consume 2,000 calories per day had an impact that lasted beyond the meal: it prevented participants from eating more later that day, an effect that was absent without the contextual anchoring statement. These findings highlight the importance of putting calorie information in the context of a full day’s calorie requirements.

Front-of-Package Food Labeling

Front-of-package food labeling drew attention in the U.S. in August 2009 when the food industry released the Smart Choices labeling system, paradoxically identifying mayonnaise and Cookie Crisp cereal as “better-for-you” choices. Based on objective, scientific criteria, our research found that, 64% of the products deemed Smart Choices would not be considered healthy options. In another study, we also found limited influence of the Smart Choices symbol on perceptions of a breakfast cereal and consumption of that cereal. Shortly after its introduction, the Connecticut Attorney General threatened investigation into the program and the FDA announced an initiative to develop recommendations for a uniform front-of-package labeling system. The Smart Choices program was discontinued

Since then the food industry has released a new front-of-package labeling system called Facts Up Front.

We then conducted research comparing the Facts Up Front symbol to a multiple Traffic Light system. The traffic light label uses red, green, and yellow symbols to alert consumers to low, medium, and high levels of different nutrients. Our study found that overall a traffic light labeling approach did a better job increasing consumer understanding of a food’s nutritional profile. Consumers viewing foods with the Facts Up Front label were more likely to underestimate the presence of sugars, sodium, and saturated fat in foods and overestimate the amount of protein and fiber. In another study comparing different versions of the traffic light labeling system, we found that the addition of daily caloric intake anchoring information on the traffic light label also improved the accuracy of consumer judgments.

Overall, our research finds that nutrition labels that are easier to understand and convey nutrition information in more meaningful ways beyond simply providing numbers, are likely to be more effective at informing people and changing behavior.

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