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Nutrition info on food labels DOES encourage healthy eating

A household will buy more healthy food if a retailer clearly shows nutritional information on its own-brand food products, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Bath evaluated the impact front-of-pack nutrition labelling – first introduced in 2006 – has on people’s buying habits. 

There is a clear reduction in the quantity of store-branded food purchased, such as ready meals, pizzas and burgers, when they have a nutrition information displayed.

There was also an overall improvement in the nutritional composition of consumers’ shopping baskets where labelling was displayed, according to the Bath team.

The researchers said these improvements in food shopping habits were most prominently observed across poorer households.

In 2006 the UK Food Standards Agency recommended retailers introduce front-of-pack labelling on their store-brand products for items like ready meals, burgers and sausages, pies, breaded or coated meats, pizzas, sandwiches and cereal.

The information displayed includes details on salt, sugar and calorie content. 

Retailers such as Waitrose, Co-op, Marks & Spencer and Asda introduced either a traffic-light system or hybrid system of traffic lights and guideline daily amounts. 

A Traffic Light System features a colour-coded scheme denoting the amount of nutrients by the colours red (high), amber (medium) and green (low).

A hybrid system incorporates both a traffic light system and Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs), where both colours and the contribution that each of these nutrients make towards the adult GDA were displayed. 

On average, households reduced the total monthly calories from labelled store-brand foods by 588 Kcal, saturated fats by 14g, sugars by 7g and sodium by 0.8mg.

Hybrid style labelling was found to be the most effective at shifting choices.

 The reduction in the quantity and the improvement in the quality of store-brand labelled foods appears to be driven by the hybrid labelling system, with no evidence of any effects of the traffic light system, the team wrote.

‘The latter is perhaps surprising, as some research suggests that traffic lights are easier to understand, especially as consumers spend just 4–10 seconds choosing each product and almost half of adults have difficulty using simple percentages.’

The team say this could also just be because shoppers that purchase produce from supermarkets that use traffic lights are different to those using guideline amounts.

‘Since the introduction of labelling and the choice of label were voluntary, we cannot distinguish between these different explanations,’ the authors explained. 

The research comes weeks after the Government launched its new obesity strategy which sees an end to confectionery displays at store checkouts and a ban on adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt on TV before 9pm.

Deals such as ‘buy one get one free’ on unhealthy foods will also be banned while alcoholic drinks could soon have to list their calorie content.

Shops will be encouraged to promote healthier choices and offer more discounts on healthy food such as fruit and vegetables.

Lead researcher Dr Eleonora Fichera, from the University of Bath, said results show that nutritional labelling can play an important role in changing behaviours.

Using labels can push people towards more healthier food choices ‘whether that be during the weekly shop in a supermarket, or potentially through new healthier menu choice options’, according to study authors.

‘Labelling has a dual effect in better informing consumers about the nutritional value of the products they put in their shopping basket, but it may also incentivise manufacturers towards better quality food products.

‘This, of course, is not a panacea to solve the obesity problem, which is multi-faceted and needs to be tackled with a much more systemic approach.

‘But these results provide policymakers with further evidence that such measures can make an important contribution.’   

There were some limitations on the study, including the fact that it only captured consumer choices and doesn’t consider the impact of retailer decisions.

‘We believe that this study provides evidence on the effectiveness of nutrition labelling using a relatively clean identification strategy on a large longitudinal and highly disaggregated data source,’ the authors explained.

The paper, The response to nutritional labels: Evidence from a quasi-experiment, is published in the Journal of Health Economics.

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