Labels Change Behavior – Is That Good Enough?

Knowledge Is PowerScientia potentia est – this Latin aphorism attributed to Francis Bacon tells us that knowledge is power. This idea motivates us to seek information and turn it into wise actions. But that translation is not automatic. For instance, a new study in PLOS Medicine finds that food labels can indeed change consumer behavior to favor more presumably healthy products.

However, it is not so clear that label changes are very effective for improving dietary health.

A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

This latest study is quite comprehensive. A diverse group of researchers led by Jing Song reviewed 156 studies. Of those, 101 were RCTs. They found a better effect for color-coded labels to encourage healthy purchases. But to discourage unhealthy purchases, they found a better effect for warning labels.

From there, the authors make a leap of faith and tell us:

“We provide more comprehensive evidence to guide policy-makers in choosing the optimal front-of-package labelling policies. This evidence synthesis may inform further generalisation of mandatory front-of-package labelling schemes and help to mitigate the burden of non-communicable diseases.”

Reducing the Burden of NCDs

Here is where these researchers point us back to an essential question. Will nudging people to behaviors we believe to be healthier actually make people healthier? Do we have evidence for that?

The short answer is that our answers are indirect. So they require us to lean on presumptions. The most important presumption is that driving more purchases of healthy foods will result in better health. But real world conditions often dilute the net effect of labeling and behavior changes. Research tells us that some consumers will avoid this information because it gets in the way of purchases they desire.

Thirty years ago, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act mandated the inclusion of Nutrition Facts labels on almost all food products. It was a sweeping change, but the result was not a sweeping improvement in diet-related health. Obesity and related diseases have only grown since then. Neither pursuing low-fat diets nor cutting the sugar in our diets has led the population to better health.

A Modest Effect at Best

Ten years ago, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published a research brief that still rings true today. It concluded:

“The food label alone is not expected to be sufficient in modifying behavior ultimately leading to improved health outcomes but may be used by individuals and dietetics practitioners as a valuable and motivating tool in our efforts to combat obesity and diet-related chronic disease.”

So we still believe that knowledge is power. But the power of food labels to confer knowledge and power and better health is modest at best.

Click here for the systematic review of nutrition labeling in PLOS Medicine.

Knowledge Is Power, illustration by Cassius M. Coolidge / Wikimedia Commons

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October 15, 2021