Front-of-Package Labeling: Causing Confusion

January 31, 2010

How do consumers choose from the hundreds of products on supermarket shelves?

How do consumers choose from the hundreds of products on supermarket shelves? Well, you could argue that it's the fabulous marketing, great package design, and brand loyalty that sweep consumers off their feet; but, as America's awareness surrounding what we eat, how that affects how we feel and function, and how food can be incorporated into disease prevention and control increases, nutrition takes the forefront in the decision making process. Some manufacturers, retailers and other organizations anticipated the increased interest in nutrition and health, creating front-of-package (FOP) symbols, to assist in informing consumers quickly and concisely about the nutritional attributes of a food product.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledges that the various labeling schemes with different requirements are likely to mislead and confuse consumers - which ultimately makes FOP labeling counter-productive. Currently the FDA is revamping Nutrition Facts labeling, and also wants to provide standardized, science-based criteria on which to base FOP nutrition labeling; a system that all Americans can trust and use to build better diets and improve health, especially because consumers are using FOP information more readily than the Nutrition Facts
In accordance with FDA's goals, a group led by A. Drewnowski and H. Moskowitz conducted a study assessing consumer perception of food's healthfulness, based on the presence and amount of various nutrients. An online consumer panel consisting of 320 adults estimated the healthfulness of foods. Results demonstrated that consumer perception of healthfulness was most strongly driven by the declared presence of protein, fiber, calcium and vitamin C and by the declared absence of saturated fat and sodium. In this particular study, total and added sugar contributed much less to the perception of healthfulness.

Front of package labeling needs to convey information in a way that will inform and assist consumers in making healthy nutritional choices. A standardized system that includes highlighting the presence of certain nutrients and the absence of others is necessary for this goal to be realized. The FDA is currently soliciting public input in order to inform useful, consumer friendly FOP guidelines.  

Testing Consumer Perception of Nutrient Content Claims Using Conjoint Analysis
 was published by Cambridge University Press in January's issue of Public Health Nutrition.