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When Less is More: Front of Pack Labeling

Issue March 2011

As government and industry seek solutions in education and motivation to help consumers make positive choices that will promote healthful lifestyles, upgrading labeling of food packages is seen as a next step in the effort of reversing the trend of obesity. 

To this end, by the close of 2011, the front of many food packages will have new labels.  “Nutrition Keys,” a voluntary food industry initiative, was announced by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI).  This program aims to help consumers decipher the nutritional content of the product, especially calories, fat, sodium, and sugar content, by adding call-out information on the front of product labels. This is commonly known as “Front of Pack” (FOP) labeling.

What is Front of Pack labeling?
Front of Pack (FOP) labeling typically refers to nutrition and health information found in voluntary information or claims on the primary display panel of a product, including nutrient content claims, structure-function claims, health claims, or dietary guidance. Voluntary claims are put on the front of the food package to inform consumers about things like food groups, healthful diets, or overall nutrient content. The use of symbols, logos, and icons to communicate nutritional information on the FOP has seen substantial growth during this decade. But regardless of the type of labeling, all labeling must be truthful and not misleading.

In response to a congressional directive, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked the IOM to undertake a two-phase review of FOP nutrition rating systems and symbols. The Phase I report focused on the elements of the nutrition rating criteria and science underlying existing front-of-pack systems and was released in October 2010. The Phase II report focusing on consumer understanding and use of front-of-pack systems and symbols is expected to be released in late 2011. The FDA, in coordination with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, is currently studying approaches to nutrition symbols and may develop guidance or regulations surrounding their content and use on both front-of-pack and at point-of-sale. The Nutrition Keys program was developed in response to a March, 2010 request from the First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign.  Under the “Nutrition Keys” program, participating food and beverage companies will place a standard graphic on the front of their products that displays calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar per serving. Certain labels could include up to two “nutrients to encourage”—nutrients needed to build a “nutrient-dense” diet.  All these “nutrient to encourage” are shortfall nutrients or are required to be on the nutrition facts panel including, potassium, fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, and iron. The graphic will also tell consumers how each serving of a product contributes to their overall diet based on recommended daily nutrition intake expressed as percent of daily value.

The consumer research behind the Icons
The IFIC Foundation was commissioned by GMA to conduct a web-based survey in Fall 2010 to quantitatively assess U.S. consumers’ comprehension and interpretation of a FOP nutrition labeling system. Consumers were asked to view FOP labels with varying amounts of information. The four test groups included: 1) no FOP nutrition information; 2) calories only; 3) calories plus 3 nutrients to limit; 4) calories plus 3 nutrients to limit plus up to 3 nutrients to encourage. All groups had access to, but were not compelled to use, the Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP), which provides nutrition information in more depth on the back of food packages. Participants included 7,363 primary grocery shoppers, nationally representative and consistent with the U.S. Census with respect to household income, age, and education and demographics were uniformly replicated among the four test groups.

The FOP system tested in this study generally enabled shoppers to demonstrate comprehension, express ease of understanding, and demonstrate interpretation of nutrition information on the products tested. In general, increasing the amount of nutrition information on the FOP served to strengthen consumers’ comprehension and comfort level with such material.

Consumers were more frequently able to accurately find and state nutritional content when the relevant information appeared on the FOP. The presence of nutrients to encourage on the front of the package did not interfere with the consumer’s ability to accurately find and state calories or nutrients to limit.  When consumers were asked to find specific nutrition information that was available to them on the FOP, they viewed the NFP far less often, with either no impact on accuracy, or at times with increased accuracy. Across all labeling systems tested and for all product categories, a majority of consumers were able to select the product considered to be the “best choice” with respect to nutritional value.

When evaluating subgroups and specific demographics, higher levels of formal education were positively associated with expressed ease of understanding and comprehension (especially for categories with a more “complex” NFP).  Across all education levels, those with more FOP nutrition information demonstrated higher comprehension; however, the difference in comprehension was greater among those with the least formal education. When evaluating age groups, in general, older respondents (50 to 70 years of age) were less “trusting” of FOP information when displayed and are more likely to track down correct answers on the back label. With respect to ethnicity, shoppers who were not Caucasian and non-Hispanic generally had lower comprehension levels when evaluating amounts and (especially) Daily Value percentages and were less likely to say that “reading and understanding FOP takes more time than they are willing to spend.” In many cases, the difference between racial groups can be mainly explained by disparities in education levels.

Connecting FOP to Consumer Behavior
The International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2010 Food and Health Survey found that consumers still rate the food label as their top source of nutrition information. Consumer education is critical to the success of implementing any type of new labeling approach and must be ongoing to help consumers channel knowledge into action. It will also be necessary to conduct continued consumer research to determine if any labeling approach is having the intended effects, not only on consumer purchases but also on consumption patterns to build healthful diets.

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