What's In That Food?

Food labels that are simple and factual from other countries keep consumers in the know

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) America's got the Nutrition Facts panel on every packaged food. Other countries have other systems, so what kind of label works best?

A new study found that simpler food labels better inform grocery shoppers of what's healthy and what's not.

These researchers suggest consumers take time to read the labels on the food they buy.

"Know what you're eating."

The study, led by Christina Roberto, PhD, a clinical psychologist and epidemiologist at Harvard University, looked at how well consumers understand different nutrition labels.

Outside the US, traffic light food labeling and Choice labeling are commonly used in the UK, the Netherlands and Poland.

Traffic light labels show whether the food has high, medium or low amounts of nutrients using colored red, yellow and green circles. This coloring system shows the amount of fat, sugar and sodium or salt in foods.

The Choice system appears on products that meet diet guidelines created by an international committee.

The study included 480 adults recruited through an online database from the Yale School of Management who were divided randomly into one of five groups.

More than half were women and averaged in their mid-30s.

Each group received a food product with a different label type. The first group was not given any label on their package of food.

The other groups had the Choices logo or some combination of the traffic light label with the red, yellow and green.

And among the traffic light groups, one had the colors listed by itself, another included the number of calories required to eat per day and the last included a list of nutrients that needed to be limited, depending on the food category.

Participants viewed a series of 15 food comparisons and guessed which of the two foods was healthier.

They also had to guess how much fat, sugar and sodium was in each food item, as well as the number of calories. They also rated how they thought the food would taste, the level of healthiness and how likely they were to buy each product.

In selecting the healthier product, researchers found that the groups given traffic light labels including calorie intake and the Choices labels significantly outperformed the no-label group and the traffic light with nutrients-to-limit labels on the quizzes.

The two traffic light label groups scored more than 90 percent on the saturated fat, sugar and sodium quizzes.

In comparison, the no-label and Choices groups scored 34 and 47 percent respectively.

The authors said the first step in choosing a food labeling system is to see "whether a label can be easily understood and used to estimate a product’s nutrition value."

"Putting the recommended daily calories on a label could help place a product’s nutritional value in context, making it easier to identify healthier products," the authors said in their study.

More research needs to be done to compare multiple food labeling systems, the authors said.

The authors note several limitations with the study. The people surveyed may have been more educated about nutrition than the general population since they volunteered for the study.

Also, middle-aged women in their upper 40s make up more than half of everyday grocery shoppers versus the somewhat younger group of participants in the study.

And finally, since half of the participants said they wanted to lose weight, they were already the target audience for food labels.

Rudd Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the study. One of the authors also received support from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

The study was published online September 20 in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 12, 2012
Last Updated:
October 15, 2012