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Front of Package Labeling Promotes Healthier Choices, Study Shows

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Key Takeaways

  • A study found that front-of-package (FOP) labeling leads consumers to make healthier food and beverage choices.
  • Food manufacturers were also more likely to improve the nutritional quality of their products when they embraced FOP labeling.
  • Just because something is deemed healthy in one category doesn't always mean it's healthy overall—FOP labels help with nutrition fact transparency.

“Facts Up Front" labeling, or putting the nutritional content of a product on the front of a food or beverage package, leads to improved nutrition quality across the board, according to more than a decade of data published in the Journal of Marketing.

Front-of-package (FOP) labeling makes it easier for consumers to see the nutrition facts of what they plan to purchase, thus helping them make more health-conscious decisions. This simultaneously encourages food manufacturers to upgrade the nutritional quality of their products, the study found.

“Companies want their products to appeal to consumers, and healthier products are more appealing, especially with an FOP label,” said Amy Crees, a California-based registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition by Amy, LLC. “When consumers see the FOP nutrition label that is simple to read, that has a powerful influence on whether or not they purchase that item.”

What the Study Found

Over a 16 year period, researchers examined the packaging and nutritional information of over 21,000 products across 9,000+ brands. They focused on the standard FOP label that clearly displays the number of calories, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium content. 

facts up front label
 Journal of Marketing

Their main goal was to see if adopting FOP labels increased the salience of a product’s nutrition information and if food manufacturers would respond to the consumer demand for healthier products by “enhancing the nutritional quality of their products.”

Amy Crees, RD

There are still many consumers who don’t go searching for a food label, so having it in a visible place and in such a straightforward manner will expose them to new information, and possibly new shopping habits.

— Amy Crees, RD

There were four main findings from this study:

  1. When a specific category of food (such as breakfast cereal or pizza) had products that used FOP labeling, the average nutritional quality of the entire category improved.
  2. Premium brands and brands with fewer products embraced FOP labeling more strongly than other brands.
  3. Categories that are generally considered unhealthy (such as potato chips) or are more competitive adopted FOP labeling more so than other categories.
  4. Manufacturers reduced calorie content, sugar, sodium, and saturated fat levels in products, thus increasing the overall nutritional quality. 

These findings were in line with what researchers had hypothesized. Crees added that “There are still many consumers who don’t go searching for a food label, so having it in a visible place and in such a straightforward manner will expose them to new information, and possibly new shopping habits.”

Researchers suggest that future studies analyze additional types of labels, as one limitation to this study is they only looked at the most standard, commonly used FOP label. In addition, they recommend experimenting with a randomized controlled trial to determine more cleanly the causal effect of adopting FOP labels. 

How FOP Labels Influence Consumer Decisions

When we make decisions about food, there are a few factors that come into play. 

Venus Nicolino, MA, Ph.D., a doctor of clinical psychology and author of the #1 Best Seller "Bad Advice: How To Survive And Thrive In An Age Of Bullshit", said that in a perfect world, we make decisions by weighing our options and choosing what is best for our safety, growth, and happiness. But in reality, we also factor in external pressures, such as societal norms or potential judgments from those around us. 

How we make decisions about food also typically has us considering our perspective on it, such as if we see food as fuel or more for pleasure. Diet culture often influences us as well, whether the foods labeled as healthy actually are good for us or not.

Terms like ‘low-calorie’ and ‘lite’ have become synonymous with healthier options when that isn’t always the case. Nutrient claims on the front of products tend to induce a halo effect, which is when one good quality makes us think there must be others and confuses us with the idea that “what is beautiful is also good.”

"When people see something like ‘low-fat’ on the packaging, it’s convincing because it eases their mind, [but] you may very well be onboard a nutritional Titanic that’s low in fat but drowning in sugar—which turns into fat,” Nicolino said.

Venus Nicolino, MA, Ph.D.

When people see something like ‘low-fat’ on the packaging, it’s convincing because it eases their mind, [but] you may very well be onboard a nutritional Titanic that’s low in fat but drowning in sugar—which turns into fat.

— Venus Nicolino, MA, Ph.D.

Just because one part of the product looks ‘good for you’ doesn’t mean the entire product actually is. FOP labeling provides a more holistic view of the nutrition content, thus helping consumers make healthier decisions when quickly comparing options in the store. Researchers found evidence that FOP labeling has a “nutritional information clearinghouse effect,” or that it increases the salience of product nutrition information. 

Crees suggested that because standard nutrition labels aren’t referenced by everyone regularly, FOP labels bring “more focus to nutrition information and almost forces the consumer to look at it … Consumers may start to become more aware of calorically dense foods and high amounts of added sugar and start to opt for lower-calorie foods and foods that limit added sugar.”

How FOP Labels Help Food Manufacturers Make Healthier Products

When consumers become more aware of how healthy or unhealthy the products they purchase are, companies follow suit, the study found. 

FOP labels are optional for manufacturers but have become more popular in recent years because they give consumers easily accessible information on specific nutrients, notably calories, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium. The FDA has also encouraged companies to adopt the practice. 

As noted above, manufacturers—specifically for higher-priced brands, brands with fewer overall products, competitive food categories, and unhealthy food categories—did increase the nutritional quality of their products when FOP labels were embraced.

“For many consumers, a product that tastes good but is also better for you IS compelling enough, and the brands know that. Additionally, and rather, unfortunately, we have a problem in this country where eating healthily is typically much more expensive than the alternative. So it would make sense that the brands with the more expensive ingredients would want to put the quality of those ingredients on display,” Nicolino suggested.

Putting the Pressure on Food Companies

As people become more aware of what they are putting in their bodies, food manufacturers will have to keep up with the demand and continue to enhance their products. Not only do buyers consume better products when this happens, but brands also reap the benefits, as higher-quality products can contribute to a more positive brand image, the study showed.

“This more transparent change of the FOP [labeling] will likely continue to influence how companies make their products, whether it’s the nutritional information or even the packaging,” Crees said. “If more and more companies are changing their packaging [and] content to appeal more to consumers, their competitors will need to be creative enough to keep up.”

What This Means For You

There have been proven positive impacts on both consumer choices and manufacturer decisions when FOP labels are utilized. Just because something is labeled as “healthy” doesn’t always mean it’s good for you—FOP labeling is helping to make the nutritional content of products more transparent, and thus companies are making their products better overall.

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