Can changes in nutrition labeling help consumers make better food choices?

January 23, 2013

The Nutrition Facts label was introduced 20 years ago and provides consumers with important information, including: the serving size, the number of servings in the package, the number of calories per serving, and the amount of nutrients for each serving of a packaged food. However, research has shown that consumers often miscalculate the number of calories and the nutritional content of products that have two or more servings per container but are usually consumed in a single eating occasion.

Two nutrition labeling changes could have the potential to make information easier to understand: 1) dual-column information that details single serving and total package nutrition information, and 2) declaring for the entire container.

Amy M. Lando, MPP, and Serena C. Lo, PhD, of the 's, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, College Park, MD, conducted an online study with more than 9,000 participants to measure consumers' accuracy in using modified versions of the Nutrition Facts label and to assess their perceptions of how useful, trustworthy, and helpful the label was.

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An FDA-commissioned study finds that two proposed nutrition labeling changes could potentially make nutritional content information easier to understand. Study participants could more accurately assess the number of calories or amount of fat or other nutrients per serving and in the entire package when a single, large serving per container format or a dual-column format was used. Credit: Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Says Ms. Lando, "FDA commissioned this experimental study to look at whether different ways of presenting the serving size and on the Nutrition Facts label might help consumers. In particular we were interested in studying products that have two servings per container but that are customarily consumed in a single eating occasion."

Study participants evaluated nine modified and the current label format for four fictitious products (two frozen meals and two grab-and-go bags of chips). The labels were classified into three groups. The first group of labels used a single-column format to display information for products with two servings per container; the second group used versions of a dual-column format to display information for products with two servings per container; and the third group used single-column formats that listed the contents of the product as a single, large serving.

The study team also tested whether changes in formatting, such as enlarging the font size for the declaration of "Calories," removing the information on the number of calories from fat, or changing the wording for the serving size declaration, would be helpful to consumers in determining the calories and other nutrient information for a single serving and for the entire package.

Study investigators determined that participants could more accurately assess the number of calories or amount of fat or other nutrients per serving and in the entire package when a single, large serving per container format or a dual-column format was used.

"This research is just one step in understanding how some potential food label modifications might help consumers make better decisions. Ideally, we would like to see how these labels perform in a more realistic setting, such as in a grocery store, with actual packaged foods as opposed to large labels on a computer screen," concludes Dr. Lo. The Nutrition Facts label is only one tool that can help make informed food choices and maintain healthy dietary practices, but it is a valuable tool so it's important to continue exploring ways to support effective use of the label for these purposes."

In an audio podcast accompanying the study, Ms. Lando and Dr. Lo discuss their study methodology, the labeling they tested, and study results and implications.

Explore further: Trying to eat healthy? Read those nutrition labels carefully

More information: "Single-Larger-Portion-Size and Dual-Column Nutrition Labeling May Help Consumers Make More Healthful Food Choices," Amy M. Lando, MPP, Serena C. Lo, PhD. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Volume 113, Issue 2 (February 2013). DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.06.012

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