How Much Should Food Say Up Front?

Sept. 21, 2020

Researchers look at the impact of front-of-pack nutrition information.

When food tells you up front that it’s good for you, it probably is.

If you find that conclusion less than startling, you’re not one of the university researchers who just released a study about the impact of “front of package” (FOP) nutritional info. The researchers, at North Carolina State University and elsewhere, analyzed 16 years’ worth of data to determine the impact of putting nutritional information like calories, fat, sodium and sugar on the front label of food and beverage packages.

Their conclusion, after looking at 21,096 products from more than 9,000 brands in 44 food categories from 1996 to 2001: Healthy food is healthy.

“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 Rishika, co-author of the study and an associate professor of marketing in North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management, said in a university news release.

Now, if I were a mean kind of blogger, at this point I would throw in some snark along the lines of, Thanks, Captain Obvious. How about a study on how guys who buy hair gel are less likely to be bald?

But the study is legitimately interesting and, in fact, draws deeper conclusions. It detected a sort of industry-wide halo effect for FOP labeling.

When the categories in which some products adopted FOP labeling are considered together, there was a noticeable drop across them for the type of negative nutrients singled out by FOP labeling. Sugar went down almost 4%; fat, salt and calories all declined between 12% and 13%. Rishika explained this as a case of “competitive pressure on other brands in that category to innovate and improve the nutritional quality of their products.”

The FOP information that the researchers studied mostly was formatted according to the guidelines of Facts Up Front, a voluntary initiative set up in 2011 by the Consumer Brands Association (formerly the Grocery Manufacturers Association) and FMI, the Food Industry Association (formerly the Food Marketing Institute).

The key word is “voluntary.” As far as I’ve been able to tell, Chile is the only country that currently requires any nutritional information on the front of packaging, and that consists of just a stop sign on foods that are high in fat or other negative nutrients. The U.S. is so dead-set against mandating front-of-package warnings that it became a sticking point in the negotiations to replace NAFTA.

The question of voluntary vs. mandatory FOP disclosure is a sticky one, all right. The N.C. State study’s researchers note that a voluntary system makes it easier for consumers to find healthier food, since healthier products tend to be the ones volunteered for the program. On the other hand, some health advocates dismiss voluntary FOP as cherry-picked data that amounts to nothing more than marketing.

My own take: Voluntary participation is better than nothing, but if you want to see a true “halo effect,” make it mandatory. Once processors have to state how much fat, salt, etc., is in their stuff in big, clear numbers up front, they’ll have an incentive to get those numbers down.