Impact of nutritional labeling, point-of-purchase signs on food choices

August 6, 2010

Two studies published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association shed light on behaviors regarding food choices and good nutrition and report on how nutritional labeling and point-of-purchase signs are influencing healthy food choices.

In the first study, researchers from Columbia University examined to what extent people used the nutritional label on food products and whether that use affected their nutrient intake. Using a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults who participated in the 2005–2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the authors found that 61.6% of participants reported using the nutrition facts panel, 51.6% used the list of ingredients, 47.2% read the serving size, and 43.8% reviewed health claims at least sometimes when deciding to purchase a food product. Significant differences in mean nutrient intake of total calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, dietary fiber, and sugars were observed between food label users and non-users, with label users reporting healthier nutrient consumption. The greatest differences observed were for total calories and fat and for use of specific nutrient information on the food label.

“If the food label is to have a greater public health impact, rates of use will likely need to be increased among U.S. adults,” said researcher Nicholas J. Ollberding. “Low rates of label use also suggest that national campaigns or modification of the food label may be needed to reduce the proportion of the population not using this information. Possible changes to the current label that have been suggested include bolding calorie information, reporting the total nutrient intake for foods likely to be consumed in a single sitting, and using more intuitive labeling that requires less cognitive processing such as a red, yellow, and green ‘traffic light’ signs on the front of the label.”

In the second paper, researchers from San Jose State University conducted a pilot study of a Point-of-Purchase (POP) program and its influence on the purchasing behaviors of a multi-ethnic college population shopping at an on-campus convenience store. This 11-week study collected baseline sales data for six weeks during the middle of the Fall 2008 semester. After students returned from Winter break, “Eat Smart” program materials featuring the “Fuel Your Life” logo were placed in the on-campus convenience store. Sales data were collected during the middle of the Spring 2009 semester for five weeks, ending just before students left for Spring break.

Healthful items in seven food categories (cereal, bread, soup, cracker, canned vegetable, granola/energy bar, and salad dressing) were tagged throughout the market. There was no difference in price between the tagged and untagged items. While no significant difference in sales of any particular food item was observed between baseline and intervention, overall sales of tagged items, as a percentage of total sales in the cereal, soup, and cracker categories, increased as a result of the intervention, while sales of tagged bread items decreased. Though not statistically significant, the intervention resulted in a 3.6% increase in the percentage of sales from tagged items.

“This research indicates that a simple logo helped students identify healthful food choices, and positively influenced food choice,” said researcher Marjorie R. Freedman. “It would be interesting to determine if a combination of point-of-purchase nutrition information, coupled with economic incentives (e.g., lower prices for healthier foods) would further drive consumers to choose these healthier food items. We must aggressively test such options in light of the increasing threat of obesity to the health of our society.”

Food Label Use and its Relation to Dietary Intake among US Adults

Point-of-Purchase Nutrition Information Influences Food-Purchasing Behaviors of College Students: A Pilot Study