Food warning labels are inconsistent in discouraging unhealthy foods25 Oct 2022
A front-of-pack nutrition warning label is more of a deterrent on breakfast cereals than indulgent products, such as chocolate and cookies, according to findings from a recent Chilean study.
In the study, published in the journal Marketing Science, the Chilean-based team found consumers reduced breakfast cereals purchases with these labels – a finding not repeated with chocolates and cookies.
Further observations revealed lower and middle-income consumers and families with children were more likely to pay attention to food warning labels.
“In the breakfast cereal category, the warning labels reduced the purchased volume by 6.2 percentage points,” said the researchers, who are based at the University of Chile.
“In the chocolates and cookies categories, we found inconclusive evidence, meaning we could not see a noticeable impact on sales. Food labelling information may be necessary but not sufficient to boost consumers' healthier choices.”
Commenting on the findings from the breakfast cereals category, the research team said, “Our estimates from a household analysis indicate that medium- to low-income consumers, along with families with children, are indeed sensitive to warning labels.
“These findings are based on actual shopping behaviour that may differ from what people say they do. This effect is probably best explained by a noticeable shift in purchasing from unhealthy to healthy products, and to a lesser degree, to a reduction of purchase in that category.”
Black labels warn of exceeded thresholds
Chile brought in comprehensive food labelling regulations for products exceeding nutrient thresholds in 2016. These products must display mandatory warning labels.
Under the regulations, packaged food products that exceed sugar, sodium, saturated fats, and calorie thresholds must display standardised black labels warning.
The initial phase began on June 27, 2016, with more stringent thresholds gradually introduced in June 2018 and June 2019.
With a focus on the initial phase, the team combined individual transaction data from a large retailer with on-the-shelf information printed on the warning labels for breakfast cereals, chocolates, and cookies.
“During the transition towards compliance, store shelves included existing inventories of packaging (without warnings) from before the regulation was enacted, and new products whose packaging was compliant with the new regulation,” said the researchers.
“This enabled us to collect daily data on the label status of specific products (at the Universal Product Code [UPC] level) and watch for deviations in purchasing patterns across time and stores.”
Chocolate and cookie categories tagged as ‘unhealthy’
The team, which included colleagues from Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, pointed to differences across these categories, where variations in regulation standards allowed for nonlabelled breakfast cereal products.
This was in contrast to almost all the Universal Product Codes (UPCs) in the chocolate and cookie categories, which ended up tagged as unhealthful products, and the inclination for taste may affect more products that are considered indulgent.
The researchers also believe the results gathered in the medium socioeconomic groups and families with children are susceptible to modification via simplifying the nutritional information.
“These findings are highly relevant for policymakers who typically target both groups, given their higher risk of developing obesity especially given the alarming obesity rates among children,” the team wrote.
Other discussion points include the influence of price on the effectiveness of the Chilean warning labels among medium socioeconomic households.
“In our setting, prices did not play a significant role as unlabelled and labelled cereals displayed similar price levels. Hence, substituting away from labelled breakfast cereals was not seriously affecting household expenditures.”
Front-of-pack label adoption gaining traction around the world
Chile is among the early adopters of a mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling law that is increasingly being considered or adopted by other countries around the world.
For example, Canada has begun discussing the adoption of a mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling system which, according to the initial specifications set by the Canadian Ministry of Health, would include several elements contained in the Chilean law.
These instructions included adhering to the ‘high in’ approach, focus on sugars, sodium, and saturated fats as nutrients of public health concern and the use of black and white colours only.
Among the countries that have already implemented mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling systems are Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Israel, and Mexico.
Under present EU rules, itis not mandatory to include nutrition information on food packages, but food makers can supply it voluntarily under specific conditions.
The European Commission is proposing standardised front-of-pack nutrition labelling at the EU-level as outlined in its Farm to Fork action plan.
The study, “Identifying Food labelling Effects on Consumer Behaviour,” is published in the current edition of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) journal Marketing Science.
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