It’s not just what food manufacturers say, it’s how and where they say it. A new study found that food health improved when manufacturers introduced a “Facts Up Front” label.
With a “Facts Up Front” label, the food manufacturer indicates the number of calories and the amounts of saturated fatty acids, sugar and salt per serving. A team of researchers from North Carolina State University in Raleigh decided to test whether these labels mean the food was being made healthier. Researchers created a database of packaged foods that spanned 44 food categories over a 16-year period.
Although most food packaging must have a nutrition label with calories, micronutrients, and ingredients on it, some manufacturers have put some of this information on the front of the packaging. The paper’s researchers wanted to find out if adding a second voluntary label can and could lead to real change. In other words, is the market driving changes in the diet of food? And the evidence suggests that is exactly what is happening, ”said Dr. Rishika Rishika in a statement on research.
The researchers examined categories in which one or more products used the new labels. They then compared the nutritional information before and after adding the additional information. For comparison, the researchers used categories that lacked additional labeling.
The “Facts Up Front” label made a difference. According to the researchers, the amounts of calories, fat, sugar, and salt all went down when the contents were listed on the front. Calories, saturated fat, and sugar decreased by almost 13%. The salt went down a little below 4%.
These changes not only affected foods with the new labels, but were also displayed in all foods in the category, regardless of the label.
The researchers hypothesized that there might be a competitive advantage for brands that used the labels. “We hypothesized that if nutritional information was clearly labeled on the front of the packaging, consumers would be more likely to consider it when making a purchase decision,” said Dr. Rishika, adding that this competitive pressure could lead competitors to improve their nutritional game in order to compete with the competition.
The researchers saw improvements in five categories. Brands with more expensive products improved more than the cheaper products in the category. Brands that produced fewer products also improved their nutritional value. Likewise, foods in competitive categories with many products showed improved nutritional value, as did food categories that were classified as unhealthy. Even the products that were already on the packaging label showed lists with improved nutritional data.
Of course, a label on the front does not mean that a product is healthier than the one next to it. The only way to know would be to turn the products over and look at the full nutritional information. Nutritional needs also change from person to person. For some, low sodium is essential, for others, low sugar.
In 2020, the FDA introduced a new nutrition label. It looks a lot like the old one, but there are a couple of major changes. You will see these new labels come with the new year. They show the following:
- Calorie and fat data are printed more prominent and darker so that they are easier to see.
- Added sugar becomes more obvious.
- Serving sizes reflect the amount of food people typically eat in one serving.
- The label shows the nutritional content both for the entire pack and for a single serving, if the entire contents of the pack can be consumed at the same time.
The research raised other questions. Has the nutrient level improved because of their location or because that front of the label program allowed consumers who acknowledge that this program is voluntary to compare labels? Dr. Rishika said, “These are questions for futurology.”
Sabrina Emms is a science journalist who has worked as a researcher studying the way bones are formed.