Front-of-pack nutrition labels have little effect, research shows

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 7th August 2013

Many of the formats for front-of-pack nutrition labels currently in use on food products globally have little effect on whether consumers are motivated to choose a healthy product, according to a study published in the July edition of academic journal Appetite.

Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark found that colour coding and text on food labels increased the healthfulness of product choices when consumers were asked to choose a healthful product, but not when they were asked to choose according to their preferences. Colour coding, however, increased consumers’ perceived capability of making healthful choices.

“From a public policy perspective, the low impact of nutrition labelling is sobering,” the authors wrote.

Study method

One thousand consumers recruited from shopping centres in Germany and Poland were asked to make choices between a selection of snack foods. Researchers said snack foods were used because the “snack food category offers a large variation of brands and a spread of products with differing levels of healthfulness”.

Using brands that are sold in supermarkets in Germany and Poland, researchers showed participants colour printouts of the products’ labels, with various formats of nutrition labelling. Participants were asked first to choose one product, and then later to sort products, according to what they would prefer to buy. Next, they were asked to choose one product, and then later to sort products, according to what they regarded as most healthful.

Larger number of healthy products has greatest impact on choice

The size of the choice set was also manipulated. In both the preferred choice task and the healthy choice task, participants selected food products from a choice set of 10 products first and from an extended choice set of 20 products next. The extended choice included 10 products that had not been presented in the first set, and the products were relatively more healthful.

“The results showed that offering an additional set of more healthful products triggered consumers to reconsider their initial choice. This effect is more powerful than the other factors considered in this study,” the authors wrote.

“Based on the results of our study, policy makers should focus on the healthfulness of the overall food assortment,” wrote the authors. “Larger choice sets with more healthful products may simply nudge consumers towards more favourable choices,” they said.


New study questions impact of front of pack labelling on health motivations