Eat Less Junk Food! Effectively Making People Behave Healthier

Sea Salted Veggie ChipsThis is one of the most robust and enduring myths of food policy. The mythology holds that the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods is clear, but many consumers are confused about it. So if we can educate, persuade, cajole, or nudge them toward buying more of those healthy foods and less of the unhealthy ones, the population will move toward a healthier diet. The prevalence of diet-related diseases – like obesity and diabetes – will drop. In short food policy can make people eat less junk food, behave in healthier ways, and thus enjoy healthier lives.

In the New York Times, Kat Morgan and Mark Bittman express great confidence that food labeling regulations can do this:

“Intuitive front-of-package labeling is one of the best levers available to policymakers, and it is already working elsewhere. It can work here, too.”

Contrary Experience

The only trouble with what Morgan and Bittman are saying is that it is not exactly true.

It is true that some evidence supports the thought that front-of-pack labels can lead people to change some some intentions and behaviors about food purchases in the short term. But there is little or no evidence that it leads to healthier dietary patterns or better health outcomes.

In fact, the experience in Chile and in Mexico has been that diet-related health outcomes just keep getting worse. These are the countries to which Morgan and Bittman are referring when they say that labeling “is already working elsewhere.” It turns out that healthy dietary patterns are more complex than the mythology of junk-food demons would suggest.

A Leap of Faith

Buying into this mythology requires a leap of faith. It requires an assumption that causing people to buy less of a few “bad foods” will raise the quality of their overall dietary pattern. One must assume that the bad stuff goes away and nothing else changes. Further, it requires an assumption that health outcomes improve as a result.

This leap is evident in a new review: “The Potential Effectiveness of Front-of-Pack Nutrition Labeling for Improving Population Diets.” In their review, Bridget Kelly and colleagues find evidence that such labeling leads to improved consumer knowledge and changes in food choices and intentions to purchase healthy food. But they note a critical limitation:

“Relatively few real-world trials were identified that have evaluated the impact of implemented policies on nutrition labeling in the marketplace, and these were limited to high-income countries.”

In fact, they find that no evidence exists from RCTs to show that front-of-pack labeling has an effect on obesity or any other diet-related disease. Evidence for this from other sources is “very uncertain,” they write.

A Presumption of Effectiveness

So at the end of the day, all we have is a presumption that front-of-pack labeling will lead people to follow healthier dietary patterns and live healthier lives. Direct evidence is lacking.

Click here for the commentary by Morgan and Bittman, here for the review by Kelly et al.

Sea Salted Veggie Chips, photograph by Ted Kyle / ConscienHealth

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


July 2, 2024

One Response to “Eat Less Junk Food! Effectively Making People Behave Healthier”

  1. July 02, 2024 at 12:28 pm, Allen Browne said:


    Just the facts, Mam – as the detective said years ago.