FDA to study impact of nutrition symbols

June 4, 2009

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced that it will conduct an Experimental Study of Nutrition Symbols on Food Packages. The FDA uses the term “nutrition symbols” to refer to symbols used in food labeling that highlight a food’s overall nutritional profile or a particular nutritional attribute. Because of the growing popularity of nutrition symbol programs, the FDA held a public hearing in September 2007 and requested public comments responding to specific questions posed by the agency. Following the public hearing, the FDA released a memorandum reviewing the comments it received and outlining its next steps with regard to nutrition symbols. The FDA also has begun collecting consumer research regarding how consumers interpret and use nutrition symbols. Because the FDA does not currently have relevant information about the effects of nutrition symbols on consumers to make fully informed regulatory decisions on their appropriate use, the agency is undertaking its own consumer study.

The proposed experimental study is intended to “assess quantitative consumer reactions to front-of-package nutrition symbols.” As part of the agency’s continuing efforts to enable consumers to make informed decisions about their nutritional intake and to “construct healthful diets,” the study will focus on consumer processing of a selected sample of nutrition symbols in the U.S. marketplace. The study will employ a Web-based survey of 2,400 adults in an online consumer panel. The FDA plans to sample subjects randomly assigned to groups in which they will view and analyze various labels. Based on those variables, researchers will focus on the following consumer reactions: (1) Judgments about a food product in terms of its nutritional attributes, overall healthfulness, health benefits, and other characteristics such as taste; (2) judgments about a label in terms of its credibility in conveying the product’s nutritional attributes and helpfulness in product choices; (3) identification of the more nutritious product in a pair of products; and (4) impact of the symbol on the use of the Nutrition Facts label.

Federal Register notice