Updating the Nutrition Facts Panel for Today's Consumer

By: Elizabeth Rahavi, RD and Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, MS, RD  Date: 1/12/09

As the saying goes, everything that's old is new again. We are use to seeing this in the world of fashion, where classic silhouettes worn by the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Twiggy, and Jackie Onassis are re-imagined with modern touches and grace the pages of today's glossy fashion magazines. Surprisingly, the world of nutrition isn't all that different.

Decades have passed since the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (a.k.a. NLEA) was passed, requiring most foods and beverages sold for purchase in the United States to bear a nutrition label. This sweeping action by Congress took what had been a patchwork of nutrition labeling policies in a number of states and turned them into the standardized Nutrition Fact panel (NFP) that we see on foods and beverages in grocery stores today. Recent action from the Food and Drug Administration has signaled a unique opportunity to modify and update the NFP and make it a more effective tool for today's consumer.

First A then B

For the past three years, the International Food Information Council Foundation has been working on an exciting consumer research project to gain a better understanding of how consumers use the NFP to build a diet. Like much of our work at the Foundation, we feel that consumer research is often a first step in determining Americans' needs and desires related to food and nutrition communications.

The Foundation Food Label Consumer Research Project is a three-phase project with both qualitative and quantitative phases. The overall project objectives are to:

  • Understand how consumers make food and beverage purchasing decisions using the NFP in the context of the entire package as well as other food and nutrition information sources (Phase I - ethnographic interviews);
  • Explore changes to the NFP that could facilitate consumers' decisions (Phase II - iterative focus groups); and 
  • Measure to what extent specific NFP changes or enhancements, compared to the current NFP, help consumers interpret NFP information (Phase III - quantitative Web experiment and survey).

Summaries of all three phases can be found here.

Insights for Building a Better Label

What we found was insightful. Overall consumers told us that:

  • The mention of a government body, like the FDA, in a highly used area of the NFP, such as a header in the main body of the NFP, increases trust in the information provided, particularly serving size.
  • Moving the location of calories into the main body of the NFP appears to encourage greater use of this information.
  • Adding the %DV of calories helps consumers consider a product within the context of their daily diet.
  • Moving the information in the current footnote into an easily referenced column in the main body of the NFP (i.e., creating a 3rd column) greatly increases consumers' ability to evaluate a product.

The work that the Foundation has completed so far is just that beginning of this process and should not be considered an endorsement of any particular label. Additional testing, by the Foundation, FDA, and others, still needs to take place to ensure that any potential labels will be accepted and used by consumers. Also, any changes must be accompanied by appropriate consumer education to ensure that people know how to use the information provided.

An Opportunity to Modernize

Whether fashion, food, or technology, the chance to update and modernize is an opportunity not to be missed. In the case of nutrition labeling, an updated NFP can potentially lead to people gaining better information about the nutrient content of a product, which may lead to more informed choices and better diets overall.  Other groups have already weighed-in on this issue by issuing press releases and responding to the FDA's request for public comment issued in the Federal Register.

What modifications to the NFP would you recommend to make it a better tool?