Food Packaging

Can Food Formulation and Labeling Affect Health?

Regulations are all around when it comes to food formulation and labeling. Some of the regulations are a simple matter of science and safety. Ingredients must be safe for human consumption. But some of it is a matter of principle. People have a right to know what’s in the food they’re buying.

Even with all the regulations, food makers have a lot of flexibility. And regulations keep changing. For instance, we have new rules for Nutrition Facts labels coming into effect. On top of that, food makers are bowing to market pressures and reformulating their products. Right now the industry is reformulating many products so that they’ll have a “clean label.”

How much of a difference can these changes make? Two new studies offer a few clues.

Labeling Effects

An ambitious meta-analysis of labeling effects in AJPM looks at how food labeling may affect consumer diets and industry practices. Siyi Shangguan and colleagues analyzed data from 60 studies with millions of observations in 11 different countries. They suggest that labeling has a meaningful effect on consumer behaviors. For instance, they found increases in vegetable consumption based on labeling. Consumers might favor products with fewer calories or less fat based on labeling. They were led to avoid food with qualities deemed to be unhealthy.

And then, on the supply side, they found evidence that labeling requirements were an effective way to influence industry. Trans fat and sodium labeling requirements led to reformulation. Sodium content dropped. Trans fat faded out of the food supply because consumers shunned it.

Food Formulation

In the second study, Carlo Federici and colleagues conducted a systematic review of modeling studies on the impact of food reformulation. Specifically, they were focusing on estimates of the potential effect on diet and health.

And in this instance the data was a little weaker. These models are useful for highlighting issues and opportunities. But they have serious limitations. The study designs are all over the place. Assumptions differ widely. They need better validation and more extensive scenario analyses.

Some Inevitable Surprises

So if you’re uncomfortable with ambiguity, this is not the field for you. It’s safe to say that labeling, regulations, and market pressures can affect what people eat. But predicting the ultimate outcomes can be quite a challenge. Sometimes it works out very well, as it did with trans fats. We no longer need to worry about them.

But in other circumstances, unexpected outcomes crop up. The food supply adapts and people surprise us. Who knew that low-fat snacks weren’t always the best choice? Collecting data on actual outcomes is always a good idea. Food policy can have unpredictable effects.

Click and here for the labeling study and here for the reformulation study.

Full Disclosure Food Packaging, photograph © PressReleaseFinder / flickr

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January 17, 2019

8 Responses to “Can Food Formulation and Labeling Affect Health?”

  1. January 17, 2019 at 6:15 am, Michael said:

    Labels. Hmm. Ideally one ingredient per packet. Cook and eat ‘food’, not concoctions from factories.

    • January 17, 2019 at 6:27 am, Ted said:

      My steel-cut oatmeal comes from a factory. In a can. I turn it into a concoction with apples and raisins and milk.

  2. January 17, 2019 at 9:44 am, Christine Weithman said:

    Consumers are dependent on food manufacturers to meet their desire for good tasting food. Manufacturers are looking to meet this trend and produce wholesome foods. The trend for ‘clean labels’ however, can be a big disservice, especially if on a fixed income and believe they must follow these rules. if consumers shun healthy frozen vegetables or canned [low sodium/low added sugar] produce because they are not fresh they can harm their health and their pocketbook.

    • January 17, 2019 at 9:55 am, Ted said:

      I agree with you, Christine. It’s a lovely fantasy to think we can live without processed foods. But without processed foods, hunger would instantly be a much bigger problem. We need to make processed food genuinely better, not make it scary.

  3. January 17, 2019 at 2:54 pm, Mary-Jo Overwater said:

    I’m glad to see the study affirming that regulations on food formulation and labeling are helping people make better choices. It has led food producers to being more transparent, accountable, and innovative in meeting the consumer demand for these better choices, especially for processed foods. The BigFood companies have had to compete with artisanal, smaller companies who do provide us with purer, less ‘complicated’ versions of jarred, canned, frozen, vacuum packed, ambient type products and it’s helped to improve taste, quality and nutritional value of processed foods. This is helpful when trying to get people eat better. As long as companies don’t go crazy with using false claims on their formulations and labels and trickster marketing ploys, resulting in people consuming foods because of false health halos, paying big premiums for these foods, and thinking they are improving their health when in fact, they’re not (yes, Snackwells Syndrome), it’s all good. Having said that, even the really greatly formulated and labeled foods and beverages that are now available all have the potential to be unhealthy if and when consumed in excessive amounts. Even fresh, unprocessed food consumed in excess is not healthy.

  4. January 17, 2019 at 5:13 pm, Michael said:

    Thanks Mary-Jo. Your last sentence prompts the big question. Why are we overeating (even unprocessed food) when we weren’t 50 or so years ago? What in the environment is causing the corruption of our fuel management systems? There is a constellation of suspects. Are they all contributing?

    • January 17, 2019 at 6:48 pm, Ted said:

      You’re asking the perfect question, Michael. And all we can do is speculate. My guess is that all of these factors push us in the direction of obesity. No doubt some factors are more important than others. But I’m very skeptical when anyone tries to single out one factor and say “it’s all about x.”

  5. January 18, 2019 at 8:20 am, Mary-Jo said:

    Yes, Michael, that is an important question that I believe is only now getting the serious attention, investigations, and discussions it warrants in order to address the multi-factorial solutions that can truly address people who have become obese and why. We knew as far back as 40 years ago when it first started to occur much more often that it was so much more than people making some sort of conscious decision to overeat and move less. As if. But, all this time, even with much research to suggest the complexity of the disease, people have been urged to simply go on a diet (take your pick) and work out till you burn. And if you didn’t lose the weight, you were a hopeless glutton. Not helpful. I’d like to answer your question about overeating even healthy food and my own experience and with how the medical profession addressed it for me. I am a registered dietitian who had obesity through childhood until early adulthood — moderate to morbid. I come from an Italian family where food is love. We actually ate very healthfully, but my Italian grandparents were obsessed with fitting into the American culture, so they would also feed us burgers and fries, milkshakes, donuts, etc. AFTER we had just eaten lunch or dinner! I believe I was grossly over fed, but not intentionally. Of course, as a teenager, I was constantly going on and off diets. Through studying dietetics, nutrition, metabolism, and obesity, I stopped going on diets, and changed my lifestyle to eat wholesome as possible and more importantly, start exercising regularly. It took an inordinate amount of discipline for me to change and sustain this lifestyle until I ‘mastered’ these changes to become my new normal. I lost 100 lbs and kept it off for the best part of 18 years. I was finally normal! Hooray! Well, after my second pregnancy, I developed hypothyroidism. It went undiagnosed for 24 years. It wasn’t so much the hypothyroidism itself that caused me to gain 75% of the weight back, but the extreme fatigue that goes with being hypothyroid that disabled me from exercising, actually moving like I had been used to. My body became overfat, flabby and unfit. And yes, I never felt full. I was eating very healthfully — I am a dietitian, it’s just part of me to eat as fresh, unprocessed, and wholesome as possible, but without a functional metabolism helping to get my nutrients to where they needed to go to make me feel well and satiated, I constantly felt hunger. I was overeating and I knew it — healthy food, but too much of it. I needed help. I knew something was wrong and I would ask my GPS, even my fellow dietitian colleagues what I needed to do and everyone just kept reprimanding me that here I was, an enlightened professional who knew better and I couldn’t control myself. Can you imagine how humiliating this was for me. I even had one doctor tell me to start a very helpful exercise he figured out for his obese patients — lift the fork from out of your mouth and put it back on your plate! Can you Imagine! Anyway, a few years ago, I insisted my GP work with me to help me out. I told her I would not leave her office until she ordered a complete comprehensive medical examination of every organ of my body. We also dug up all my medical records. Sure enough, there were a few doctor notes post-partum that I had hypothyroidism and needed follow up, 24 years prior! It was the first time I had heard this. Also, the updated medical tests confirmed hypothroidism and I probably had it all that time. So, now after a couple years of finally being on proper medication, my body is correcting! Weight bias and stigmatization and assumptions about people with obesity is paralyzing
    toward helping people with this disease find the factor or set of factors to help treat them properly.