Nutrition labeling law lowered nutrition, improved taste

February 20, 2012

In the nearly two decades since regulations required food products to contain a "Nutrition Facts" label, the overall nutritional quality of branded food products in supermarkets has decreased while the taste of these same products has improved, according to researchers at Duke University and the University of Maryland. 

Among those foods that did improve their , "junk foods" or low-health products increased their nutrition more than healthier options. And among companies, those with smaller brands or fewer existing brands were more likely to make improvements to the nutrition of their products.   

These findings from researchers at Duke's Fuqua School of Business and Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business will be published in a forthcoming edition of the journal Marketing Science.

The research was conducted through two studies of food products before and after the nutrition labeling regulations. The first study investigated food products in 30 product categories -- some required by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1993 to feature nutrition labels such as foods in supermarkets, and some not required to feature nutrition labels such as similar foods in restaurants.

The second study used a sample of brands from Consumer Reports to examine brand nutrition and taste for a smaller set of categories before and after the NLEA.

"We think the main reason for our results is that consumers find taste more important than nutrition, as indicated by consumption trends during this time showing increased consumption for added fats and sugars as well as a 100 percent increase in calories from snacking," said Christine Moorman, professor of business administration at Fuqua.

"And since nutrition is perceived to be negatively correlated with taste, we believe many companies decided to reduce the nutritional value of their food products after the passage of the NLEA," Moorman said. "Since nutrition labels were generally not present before the NLEA, consumers would not be aware of these changes, only that the product competed well on taste."

The changes are what Moorman and her co-authors call "unintended nutrition consequences."

The NLEA sought to eliminate untruthful nutritional claims and to improve consumers' ability to find nutrition information at the point of sale. Manufacturers are required to display a label of nutrition facts with standardized information on all nutrients, recommended daily values and an ingredient list.

Claims of health benefits on food packaging are also regulated for truthful content. Prior to adoption of the NLEA, most did not commonly disclose nutrition information, which made comparisons within and across food categories difficult for consumers.

"It would be reasonable to assume the NLEA's required labels would help consumers find healthful foods and stimulate competition to improve brand nutrition," said Rosellina Ferraro, assistant professor of marketing at Smith. "Our research indicates food producers were reluctant to improve nutrition on the belief that consumers will perceive better nutrition as a taste tradeoff."  

While the nutritional value of most foods declined in the years following the NLEA, some foods have improved nutrition. The researchers found brands in low-health categories (e.g., potato chips) and small-portion categories (e.g., peanut butter) improved nutrition more than brands competing in high-health categories (e.g., bread) or large-portion categories (e.g., frozen dinners).

Likewise, smaller companies in a food category and those companies with fewer existing brands were more likely to improve nutrition.

"This makes sense because companies may have hoped to grab the attention of health-conscious consumers while many of their large counterparts hesitated for fear of negative consumer reactions," Moorman said.

"In some significant ways, the NLEA has brought about results that are nearly the opposite of what was intended," Moorman said. "The policy lesson is that well-meaning regulation that forces the disclosure of information on an attribute (e.g., nutrition) that is less important than another attribute (e.g., taste) is not likely to encourage companies to compete on the disclosed attribute. Instead they will compete on the most important attribute."

Therefore, the ongoing challenge for food producers, policy makers and public health advocates is to increase the value consumers place on nutrition and to reduce the perceived nutrition-taste tradeoff, the authors argue.

Explore further: Food nutrition labels influencing health-conscious consumers to choose more calories

More information: The research is available online.

Related Stories

Food nutrition labels influencing health-conscious consumers to choose more calories

February 15, 2012
In a recent study, Colorado State University marketing Professor Gina Mohr has uncovered facts about nutrition labeling that might change how food purchasing decisions are made.

Trying to eat healthy? Read those nutrition labels carefully

January 20, 2012
People who made New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier or lose weight might also want to brush up on their math skills.

Consumers don't pay as much attention to nutrition fact labels as they think

October 24, 2011
Nutrition Facts labels have been used for decades on many food products. Are these labels read in detail by consumers when making purchases? Do people read only certain portions of the labels? According to a new study published ...

Recommended for you

Sugar not so sweet for mental health

July 27, 2017
Sugar may be bad not only for your teeth and your waistline, but also your mental health, claimed a study Thursday that was met with scepticism by other experts.

Could insufficient sleep be adding centimeters to your waistline?

July 27, 2017
Adults in the UK who have poor sleep patterns are more likely to be overweight and obese and have poorer metabolic health, according to a new study.

Vitamin E-deficient embryos are cognitively impaired even after diet improves

July 27, 2017
Zebrafish deficient in vitamin E produce offspring beset by behavioral impairment and metabolic problems, new research at Oregon State University shows.

The role of dosage in assessing risk of hormone therapy for menopause

July 27, 2017
When it comes to assessing the risk of estrogen therapy for menopause, how the therapy is delivered—taking a pill versus wearing a patch on one's skin—doesn't affect risk or benefit, researchers at UCLA and elsewhere ...

Blowing smoke? E-cigarettes might help smokers quit

July 26, 2017
People who used e-cigarettes were more likely to kick the habit than those who didn't, a new study found.

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

randyaokeefe
not rated yet Feb 21, 2012

You can cut your bills tremendously by visiting "Get Official Samples" website without becoming addicted like some of the people you see on TV, Thats more like hoarding.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.