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Can a New Kind of Label Make Food Healthier?

Business Researchers Recommend Front-of-Package Nutrition Information

By Karen Johnson

Illustration of woman reaching for food on a store shelf

Illustration by iStock

Moving nutrition labels to the front of packages is a minor change that could motivate food producers to strive for healthier ingredients and bump up the nutrition of items throughout whole product categories, according to new UMD marketing research.

How often have you grabbed a package adorned with images of wholesome, farm-fresh ingredients in a supermarket, only to squint at the nutritional table on the side and quickly put it back on the shelf because of what wasn’t pictured: piles of sugar, fat and unpronounceable ingredients.

New University of Maryland research published last week in the Journal of Marketing examines the likely effects if those nutritional labels were required on the front of the package, and finds that not only could it prevent you from having to wade through deceptive marketing product by product—it could bump up the nutritional quality of everything on the shelf. 

While the new labels would be a relatively small change, a lot’s at stake when it comes to the health of our food, says study co-author P.K. Kannan, the Dean’s Chair in Marketing Science at the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Diet-related chronic diseases impose a growing financial and health burden on the U.S. economy by increasing costs of health care and widening diet-related health disparities, he said. In the United States, where diets have been shifting toward more calories but less nutritional value since the 1970s, more than one-third of adults and roughly one-fifth of children are obese, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

In recent years, policymakers, food manufacturers and grocery retailers have sought to design nutrition labels that can better inform consumers and help them make choices, including a front-of-package (FOP) option adopted by some manufacturers. These labels present a thumbnail of nutritional information, including calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium per serving.

Kannan and his co-authors found that when FOP labels were used, a significant improvement resulted in the nutritional quality of food products across that product category.

This effect of FOP is particularly strong for premium, higher-priced brands and brands with a narrower product line breadth, as well as in unhealthy food categories and those with a higher competitive intensity.

Perhaps most importantly for consumers, they found that when FOP was adopted, manufacturers increase the nutritional quality of products by reducing the calorie content and limiting ingredients such as sugar, sodium and saturated fat.

“For consumers, keep looking for the FOP labeling,” Kannan said. “Our study finds that the brands that adopted FOP labeling offer nutritionally superior products than those that did not adopt the labeling.”

Policymakers, meanwhile, should encourage food manufacturers and retailers to adopt “voluntary, standardized and transparent labeling programs” and consider options for broadening the information that’s presented in FOP labels, the researchers wrote in an American Marketing Association article summarizing the findings. “We believe that policy makers should also invest in educational campaigns that inform consumers about the value of FOP labels, and that would further incentivize food manufacturers to offer nutritionally better products.” 

The findings suggest that food manufacturers should work to innovate across their product lines to stay competitive. Manufacturers in less healthy and more competitive categories, in particular, could be more strategic and invest in innovation so they are ready to provide better products following FOP adoption.

And grocery retailers, they said, should lean hard into FOP labeling, promoting products with the upfront labels, knowing they can lead to better-quality products for their customers—who’ll surely appreciate not having to look for the fine print to find out what’s really in the package.

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