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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Nutrition Labeling: How Can We Make Choosing Healthy Foods Easier?

By Rachel Murphy

Do you use nutrition labels on food packages when grocery shopping? Does the information guide your food selection? The Nutrient Facts label required on most foods in the US and Canada is designed to help consumers make informed and healthier food choices. A previous study showed that reading nutrition labels is associated with a lower-fat diet.  But according to a recently published study, the required nutrition labeling in the US and Canada is the hardest to digest out of the four systems tested.   

The researchers conducted an internet based experiment where individuals were asked to make food choices based on images of products, taste scores and one of four types of nutrition labeling; the Nutrition Facts label, the Traffic Light label used in the United Kingdom, the NuVal label which is used on some foods in the US and the Heart label. The Traffic Light label uses colors to designate nutrients as low, medium or high (e.g. green for low in sugar, yellow for medium in salt, red for high fat content), the NuVal is a single score from 1-100 used to estimate the nutritional value of a product and the Heart label is similar to the Heart-Check by the American Heart Association

The study found that the Nutrition Facts panel took the most time to understand, minimally affected food choice and was the least useable.  The NuVal label was the most informative, quick and easy to use which the researchers to conclude that ‘labeling schemes with these same characteristics could do as well or better than NuVal labels”.           

Perhaps it is not surprising that consumers find the Nutrient Facts label confusing.  After all, there is a website devoted to how to read the Nutrient Facts label and even as a PhD in Nutrition, I admittedly need time to read labels.  The FDA is proposing to make changes to the Nutrient Facts label that will hopefully help consumers.  But what can we do to help guide healthy choices now?  FDA authorized health claims can help identify healthy choices e.g. ‘Soluble fiber helps lower total and LDL cholesterol as part of a diet containing low saturated fat and cholesterol’.  The difficulty in choosing nutritious products could also be minimized if food products were improved by using more nutrient rich ingredients or fortification.  In the meantime if you see people with their heads bowed reading Nutrient Facts labels, go around, they may be awhile. 

Main Citation

Helfer P and Shultz TR. The effects of nutrition labeling on consumer food choice: a psychological experiment and computational model.  Annals NY Acad Sci 2015, doi :10.1111/nyas.12461

Other Citations

Neuhouser M et al.  Use of food nutritional labels is associated with lower fat intake. J Am Diet Assoc 1999, 99:45-53

US Food and Drug Administration. Food labeling: revision of the nutrient and supplement facts label. Available from: