Fewer than 1 in 10 consumers can make healthy choices from front-of-pack labeling, study finds

Since the pandemic started almost two years ago, consumers have taken a greater interest in their choices that affect their health and wellness. Nearly half of consumers in a recent study conducted by Attest stated they would like food to offer then better overall health and well-being. While there have been made changes to how food is labeled, it is easy for manufacturers to use front- of- product terms that isn’t entirely false, but can be somewhat misleading, causing customers to be confused. For example, in the 1990’s, the term “healthy” could be found on sugary cereals and toaster pastries but foods like nuts or avocados did not include the naturally high fat content that have.

Companies can call out the amount of various nutrients in the products, like whole grains or protein- on the front of the packages. However, companies do not have to list the amount of less nutritious ingredients, like sweeteners, sugars, sodium, or saturated fat. The recent study by Attest found that this type of selective attribute labeling, using terms like “naturally flavored”, “whole grains”, and “100 calories”, had the largest influence in leading consumers to choose incorrect health- related choices.

There have been several efforts to improve food labeling to provide more clarity to consumers about the nutritional value of the products they are buying. The most recent, notable attempt was in 2016 with the proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts Panel with implementations to the Nutrition Facts Panel made by 2020. However, those efforts have not necessarily impacted the way customers select food. While the new Nutrition Facts Panel has updated the serving sizes, made the calories easier to see, included added sugars outside of total sugars, and added new nutrients to the revised panel, consumers still must take the initiative to read and figure out what the information means on their own.

Redefining label claims, including “natural” and “healthy”, have been on the FDA’s docket for a long time, but not much progress has been made. There was a public hearing on defining “healthy” in 2017, and the USDA came out with new parameters for the term, including USDA- regulated food products will be able list “healthy” as a label claim if that products fat profile contains predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats or a serving has at least 10% of the government- set value of Vitamin D or Potassium. However, there has not been any publicly known progress from the FDA, other that the USDA’s new parameters and the public hearing. In 2016, FDA put out a press release trying to explain “natural” and artificial flavors, but no additional information has been released about this term.

The Facts Up Front initiative, which is voluntary, has been led by the Consumer Brand Association and Food Industry Association (FMI). This initiative allows manufacturers to put important information from the Nutrition Facts Panel on the front of their product’s packaging, to increase transparency for consumers. While this style of labelling has not been adopted universally, numerous studies have shown that front-of-pack labeling is effective for both manufacturers and consumers. For consumers, front- of- pack labelling can help them make better selections to better their overall health and wellness, and manufacturers will be driven to create more nutritious products.

In August 2021, a bill was proposed in Congress that would mandate several of these labeling changes, ban labels from wrongfully implying a high vegetable, fruit, or yogurt content’ adding nutritional outlines to define “healthy”; requiring detailed information about artificial additives; and requiring the FDA to clearly define “natural”. However, the future of the bill remains uncertain, as it has never had a hearing in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

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Posted on 30 March 2022