How do healthy labels impact the everyday consumer?

Food labeling and consumers making healthy choices

With the holiday season approaching quickly, people across the country are beginning to plan out their Thanksgiving meals or holiday party appetizers. Grocery stores will begin advertising their latest turkey sales, while consumers will start digging out family recipes for green bean casserole or pumpkin pie. As people begin flocking their local stores, they may see changes taking place in regards to "healthy" food products.

What does the term 'healthy' really mean?
The average shopper may be swayed by a "healthy" label in the grocery store when choosing between similar food products. However, what does the term healthy mean in regards to true nutritional value? For the past few decades, the Food and Drug Administration deemed a food item "healthy" if it was low-fat, low in sodium, low in saturated fat and cholesterol and contained a minimum of 10 percent of the recommended daily value for essential vitamins and minerals. 

"What does the term healthy mean in regards to nutritional value?"

The FDA recently began redefining the "healthy" nutritional claim for manufactured food products. What is the agency's reasoning for this sudden change? FDA officials told NPR that as the understanding of nutrition has evolved, the agency's recommendations need to adapt as well. For example, a few years ago, the general population was obsessed with everything being fat free. Yet, new studies have shown that the types of fat consumed that is more important – unsaturated versus saturated fats – rather than the amount of it.

Meanwhile, sugar content is also coming into play with this new definition as current evidence suggests a strong connection between sugar intake and the rise in widespread obesity and heart disease. According to the updated definition, the FDA will now let food manufacturers use the term healthy for any products that:

  • Are not low in total fat, but are composed of mainly mono and polyunsaturated fats.
  • Contain a minimum of 10 percent of DV per reference amount customarily consumed of vitamin D or potassium. 

"The typical consumer makes a purchase decision in three to five seconds. They don't have a lot of time," Douglas Balentine, who directs the Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told NPR. "We want to give consumers the best tools and information about the foods they choose."

"Consumers are unmotivated to adjust their choices based on nutritional information."

Do food labels encourage consumers to eat healthier? 
While common knowledge previously suggested that consumers are swayed by nutritional food labels, a recent study found that this may not always be the case. Researchers from New York University published their study entitled "The Current Limits of Calorie Labeling and the Potential for Population Health Impact," where they discovered that only around 8 percent of fast-food eaters make healthy choices due to calorie labeling. 

While calorie labeling was initially designed to help consumers make healthier food decisions, these researchers discovered that this is not the case. Science Daily writes that using a framework created by Scot Burton of the University of Arkansas and Jeremy Kees of Villanova University, the researchers found that there are five conditions that need to be met if the average consumer is to change their behavioral habits based on food labeling:

  1. Consumers must know about the labels.
  2. Consumers must want to eat healthy.
  3. Consumers must know the right balance of calories and nutrients they need.
  4. The label must provide reliable calorie information.
  5. The label must reach regular fast-food consumers.

The problem with providing calorie information on fast-food, the researchers concluded, is that consumers simply are unmotivated to adjust their choices based on vital nutritional information. Essentially, the average consumer venturing to McDonald's or KFC on a busy weeknight is not looking for a wholesome meal, they are seeking out a quick and tasty fix.

"We know that few regular fast-food eaters chose fast food because it is nutritious; they instead are motivated by cost and convenience," author Beth Weitzman, professor of public health and policy at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, remarked in the study. "However, requiring restaurants to make the calorie content of their menu items highly visible could cause restaurants to add new, healthy options to their menus."

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