Front-of-Pack Labeling Consumer Research Project

Download the research report. (PDF)

Background

The IFIC Foundation conducted a survey in Fall 2010 to quantitatively assess US consumers’ comprehension and interpretation of front-of-pack nutrition labeling. The research was supported by a grant from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). The objectives were to quantitatively assess the ability of the FOP label options under consideration to:

  • Allow consumers to comprehend FOP nutrition information.
  • Communicate the intended information in a way that is clearly and easily understood by a broad range of consumers.
  • Understand consumers’ interpretation of FOP nutrition information.

Methodology

The research, a nationally representative interactive online survey of nearly 7,400 primary grocery shoppers, tested three front-of-pack (FOP) systems against a control with no FOP nutrition information:

  1. Calories only
  2. Calories plus 3 nutrients to limit (saturated fat, sodium, total sugars)
  3. Calories plus 3 nutrients to limit plus up to 3 nutrients to encourage (protein, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber, or folate)

All systems, including the control, included access to the Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP), although consumers were not compelled to utilize this information.

Key Findings

  • The FOP icons tested in this study generally enabled shoppers to demonstrate comprehension, express ease of understanding, and demonstrate interpretation of nutrition information on the products tested.
  • In general, increasing the amount of nutrition information on the front of the package served to strengthen consumers’ comprehension and comfort level with such material.
    • Consumers were more frequently able to accurately find and state nutritional content when the relevant information appeared on the front of the package.
    • At times, fewer consumers were able to find and state nutrients to encourage when only calories + nutrients to limit appeared front of package.
    • The presence of nutrients to encourage on the front of the package did not interfere with the consumer’s ability to accurately find and state calories or nutrients to limit.
  • Among those who evaluated FOP labeling systems (not those who saw NFP only), consumers who were provided with calories + nutrients to limit + nutrients to encourage versus calories only were more likely to agree that the FOP nutrition information aided with decision-making and understanding.
  • When consumers were asked to find specific nutrition information that was available to them on the front of the package, they viewed the Nutrition Facts panel far less often, with either no impact on accuracy, or at times with increased accuracy.
  • Across all labeling systems tested and for all product categories, a majority of consumers were able to select the product considered to be the “best choice” with respect to nutritional value. Very few stated that the products were the same or “don’t know.” 
  • Higher levels of formal education were positively associated with expressed ease of understanding and comprehension (especially for categories with more “complex” NFP).
    • Across all education levels, those with more FOP nutrition information demonstrated higher comprehension; however, the difference in comprehension was greater among those with the least formal education.
  • The frequency of label usage to determine nutritional content in different situations was associated with greater self-reported ease of understanding.
  • Among age groups, in general, older respondents (50-70):
    • Are less “trusting” of FOP information when displayed
    • Are more likely to track down correct answers on back of label (greater use of NFPs when required for correct answers)
  • With respect to ethnicity, shoppers who are not White and Non-Hispanic:
    • Generally have lower comprehension levels when evaluating Amounts and (especially) Daily Value Percentages
    • Are less likely to say that FOP information does not include enough important information, among those who viewed calories + nutrients to limit + nutrients to encourage.
    • Are less likely to say that reading and understanding FOP takes more time than they are willing to spend.

      (In many cases, these types of differences between racial groups can largely be explained by disparities in education levels.)

  • There are several demographic and other groupings that offer little or nothing in the way of significant differences with respect to the survey’s parameters. This does not mean no differences exist—it simply means that within these categories there is little that can be explained by a consumer’s particular standing within that subgroup.

Considerations in Evaluating Findings

When evaluating the findings of this research, the following considerations are to be recognized:

  • The many factors that affect food purchase and consumption decisions, beyond nutrition information, were not assessed
  • Potential confounders on the food packages were controlled
    • Factors such as other information on the package, brand, complexity of NFP are present in real shopping experiences and would likely influence decisions
  • Results may vary for different categories of foods, based on factors such as pre-existing perceptions of specific foods, categories of foods, or nutrients and other messages consumers encounter on package, in store, etc.
  • One approach to FOP labeling was tested
  • Online survey methodology was  used, providing  the
    • Ability of shoppers to view, manipulate, and articulate package nutrition information
    • Access to survey a large sample, allowing for testing of 4 labeling systems on 12 products for a total of 48 test conditions
    • Ability to obtain a fully representative sample, including lower SES Americans in their proper proportions
    • Better nationwide geographic representation

Future Considerations

  • Consumer research plays an important role in understanding how to optimize any potential new approaches to food labeling.
  • Consumer education is critical to the success of implementing a new labeling approach and must be ongoing to help consumers apply knowledge and put it into action for a positive health impact.
  • Further consumer research is also necessary to determine if any labeling approach is having the intended affect(s) not only on consumer purchase, but also consumption patterns to build healthful diets with the intended health effects.