Searching for a healthier choice at the grocery store? Look out for food items featuring “front of package” (FOP) nutritional information. Not only are these products usually healthier, but they also appear to motivate their competitors to use healthier ingredients/portions as well.
According to a new study from North Carolina State University, the adoption of these front-facing nutritional labels is associated with better nutritional quality for those foods – and even their competitors.
If you’ve spent any time in a supermarket or convenience store over the past few years you’ve seen some FOP labels. Foods with these labels still include the full spectrum of traditional nutritional information on the back of their packaging, but also feature a few nutritional facts on the front as well. FOP labels are part of “Facts Up Front,” a completely voluntary food industry initiative to be more transparent about ingredients and nutritional quality.
More specifically, food products with an FOP label display the calories, sugar, sodium, and saturated fat per serving size on the front of the packaging.
“We wanted to know whether food companies were responding to increased public interest in healthier food,” says study co-author Rishika Rishika, an associate professor of marketing at North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management, in a release. “In other words, is the market driving change in the nutrition of food products? And the evidence suggests that this is exactly what’s happening.”
“For consumers, we found that the presence of a Facts Up Front FOP label on a package generally meant that the product had a better nutritional profile than competing products that didn’t have an FOP label,” she adds.
This was an extensive research project covering 16 years’ worth of nutritional data on thousands of foods. In all, 44 categories of food products sold between 1996 and 2011 were included. All of that added up to over 21,000 individual food items and over 9,000 brands.
Essentially, the research team wanted to ascertain if FOP labels had led participating manufacturers to start producing healthier foods. In short, they discovered the answer to that question is yes. But, besides that, they also discovered that an FOP label on one particular food item is also linked to nutritional improvements among direct competitors. In summation, these findings make a very strong case that FOP labels are a good idea and an effective catalyst for change in a food industry that hasn’t always prioritized consumers’ health.
“We had hypothesized that when nutritional information is clearly marked on the front of the package, that consumers would be more likely to consider it when deciding what to buy,” Rishika explains. “This would, in turn, cause competitive pressure on other brands in that category to innovate and improve the nutritional quality of their products.”
“The fact that the effect of FOP labeling was most pronounced for the nutritional variables on the FOP labels supports our theory,” she continues. “And the fact that the effect was stronger for brands that adopted FOP labeling also supports the hypothesis.”
During their analysis, the research team focused on two factors. First, they zeroed in on specific food categories that included at least one product that had adopted FOP labels at some point. In these cases, researchers looked out for any changes to the nutritional quality of all included food items in that category, before and after any single product started using FOP labels.
Nutritional differences among food products and categories that hadn’t seen any FOP labels over the years were analyzed as well, to serve as control groups.
All of that work led to a clear observation: the adoption of FOP labels by even just a few products was associated with widespread nutritional improvements in the entire category. Predictably, the biggest improvements were usually seen in nutritional areas directly covered by FOP labels (sugar, calories, etc).
Following the adoption of FOP labels among at least a few items, a 12.5% drop in calories was seen in the entire category, as well as a 12.97% reduction in saturated fat, a 3.74% reduction in sodium, and a 12.62% decrease in sugar.
“However, it remains unclear which aspect of the program is more important,” Rishika concludes. “Is the fact that the program is voluntary more important, since it helps consumers identify brands that are choosing to share nutritional information on the front of the package? Or is the fact that the FOP labeling is prominent more important, simply because the information is more clearly noticeable? Those are questions for future research.”
All in all, while many competitors attempt to follow suit, the research team concludes that food goods featuring FOP labels are usually the healthiest choice. So, given the option, always opt for food with nutritional information on the front packaging.
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Marketing.