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Consumer Dieting Hack When Food Shopping For Healthier Choices

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
How to choose the healthier food product on a shelf.

Reading labels trying to decipher whether one food product is a healthier choice over another similar food product can be tedious—especially when the print is small and you are trying to make out the calories, carbs, saturated fat, sugar and sodium per serving size. A new study reveals one easy consumer trick you can look for to ensure that the brand you are choosing is healthier than the competing brand beside it on the grocery shelf.

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A news release from North Carolina State University reports that food companies that have adopted placing nutrition data on “front of package” (FOP) labels on their food products are actually providing more nutritious foods than those from competing companies that do use FOP labeling.

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According to the news release, “We wanted to know whether food companies were responding to increased public interest in healthier food,” says R. Rishika, co-author of the study and an associate professor of marketing in North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management. “In other words, is the market driving change in the nutrition of food products? And the evidence suggest that this is exactly what’s happening.”

The “Facts Up Front” nutrition labeling program adopted by some food manufacturers on a voluntary basis, is one in which useful food information such as the calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium per serving size of their food products are clearly displayed on the packaging using relatively large, easy-to-identify FOP labels.

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To determine whether the voluntary FOP program was actually influencing food manufacturers who subscribed to the program to improve the nutritional content of food products, scientists looked at supporting data from 21,096 products, representing 9,083 brands with respect to the nutritional quality of selected products both before and after any of the products adopted the FOP labeling program.

What the researchers found was that there was a clear association between FOP labeling and changes in the nutritional content of food products. Specifically that:

• Premium brands improved nutritional quality more than non-premium brands in the same category.
• Brands that had narrower product lines, meaning they produced fewer products than their peers, improved nutritional quality more.
• Products in categories that are broadly unhealthy, such as snack foods, showed a more pronounced response.
• Foods in “more competitive” categories, meaning those in which there were many competitors at different price points, showed a more pronounced response.
• Products that had adopted FOP labeling showed more improved nutritional quality.

Furthermore, there was a marked reduction in food components targeted by the program that nutritionists agree are best served at very limited amounts. For example, the researchers detected:

• A 12.5% reduction in calories.
• A 12.97% reduction in saturated fat.
• A 12.62% reduction in sugar.
• A 3.74% reduction in sodium.

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“We had hypothesized that when nutritional information is clearly marked on the front of the package, that consumers would be more likely to consider it when deciding what to buy,” Rishika says. “This would, in turn, cause competitive pressure on other brands in that category to innovate and improve the nutritional quality of their products.

“The fact that the effect of FOP labeling was most pronounced for the nutritional variables on the FOP labels supports our theory,” Rishika says. “And the fact that the effect was stronger for brands that adopted FOP labeling also supports the hypothesis.”

For consumers who are looking to lose weight and/or adopt a healthier eating lifestyle; and, to encourage others in the food industry to improve the nutritional profile of their food products, choosing to buy foods with FOP labeling just might make even more of a difference for consumers in the near future.

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“For consumers, we found that the presence of a Facts Up Front FOP label on a package generally meant that the product had a better nutritional profile than competing products that didn’t have an FOP label,” Rishika says.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of Davgood Kirshot from Pixabay.

References:

Front of Package’ Nutrition Labels Improved Nutrition Quality” North Carolina State University news release, September 21, 2020.

Competitive Effects of Front-of-Package Nutrition Labeling Adoption on Nutritional Quality: Evidence from Facts Up Front–Style Labels” Joon Ho Lim et al. Journal of Marketing First Published September 10, 2020.

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