A new analysis suggests a few changes to nutrition labels on food would make it easier for US consumers to make healthier choices.

Adding labels to the front of packages that include a few key ingredients commonly associated with disease—sugar, sodium, and fat—would improve attention to critical nutritional information and selection of foods. The findings support a growing body of research that indicates government-mandated panels, which currently list comprehensive information on the sides of products, can be improved, says Laura Bix, a packaging professor at Michigan State University.

“Our team’s mission is to leverage basic research on visual cognition and human performance to the design and evaluation of better labels, thereby improving health outcomes. Our findings could be instrumental in informing policy decisions on reviewing and improving current standards.”

traffic light

For a new study, published in the journal Food Policy, participants took part in a change detection test that displayed food products on a computer screen. Graphics on the packages would appear and disappear, providing a “flickering effect” that participants had to find before time ran out. Changes to the nutrition information on the front of the packages were found much more easily and quickly than those relating to the traditional strategy.

“Almost all changes to labels on the front of packages were more likely to be detected than the same changes on the traditional nutrition facts panels,” says coauthor and psychologist Mark Becker. “More than 98 percent of trials with change on the front labels were identified while a majority of changes to traditional ones were missed.”

3 factors that matter

The researchers found three factors improved consumers’ ability to make better nutritional decisions.

1. Moving a few key nutrients from the side panel to the front allowed elements commonly associated with disease to be found quickly.

2. Adding a “traffic light” system that color codes foods: red for foods high in potentially dangerous nutrients; yellow for foods with moderate amounts; and green for foods with few unhealthy ingredients.

3. Simplifying the information.

In other countries, labeling is boiled down to key elements that contribute to diet-related illnesses—calories, fat, saturated fat, sugars, and salt. The study suggests that US consumers could benefit if that same strategy was employed here, Becker says.

There was one finding, however, that surprised the team. The use of faces—smiling, neutral, or frowning—didn’t outperform the treatments that utilized the color-coding system. This runs counter to a considerable body of basic research that supports a bias to attend to face stimuli.

The work directly supports a Food and Drug Administration objective to improve consumer access to and use of nutrition information, Bix says. “By taking an information-processing approach combined with experimental methods from visual cognition, we’ve provided evidence of changes that could potentially help fulfill that objective.”

This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Layne Cameron-Michigan State
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