American’s trying to lead healthier lives have some readily available tools to help them.
But in spite of decades of research and revisions, they’re not having as much impact as they could.
Put another way: You can lead an American to fast food, but you can’t make them read the nutrition labels.
That at least seems to be the takeaway from a new study of the effectiveness of the nutritional labels required by the Food and Drug Administration.
Do those fries come with trans fats? Is the medium bag of movie theatre popcorn 800 or 900 calories? They’re good questions, but not ones that occur to many people.
Manufacturers have long played up certain nutritional benefits of their foods — white bread that “helps build strong bodies 12 ways!” for one baby-boomer era example.
The food health label first entered the scene in 1973 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started requiring nutrition content to be made visible for foods that made certain health claims.
In the succeeding decades, the health label went from something seen only on a few very specific items positioned as “health foods” to a requirement for every processed food product sold in the U.S.
“If a product claimed it was high in protein, the FDA required the manufacturer to provide a modicum of nutritional information,” Michael Jacobson, the co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told FoodDive of the early nutrition label. […] It was in small print and hard-to-read but that represented the first ‘real’ nutritional labeling.”
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What exactly must be included has also changed over the years as both medical and public opinion on what is or isn’t healthy evolved.
In 2006, the FDA started requiring all foods to include information about trans fatty acids. In 2022, it is in the process of drafting the requirements for foods being positioned as “healthy” and working on a recognizable sticker that can be added to such foods.
Fast-Food Menu Requirements
Fast food chains, or any restaurant with more than 20 locations in the United States, have also been required to make their menu’s nutritional information publicly available since 2018. Some restaurants now make calorie information visible by each item on the menu while others have it online and in paper format if a customer asks for it.
But after decades of committee meetings and shifting policy, it turns out, most people care very little about what that label actually says — once the craving for a treat kicks in, a health label warning about fat, sugar or calories is unlikely to make you put it down.
That was, at least, the conclusion reached by a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research and first reported by Discover magazine. While 80% of polled shoppers said they understood the purpose of a health label to inform shoppers of whether a given restaurant dish is healthy, only 15% to 25% of those polled said they used a health label to determine whether or not to buy a given food item.
“Labels play somewhat of a role in helping consumers to better understand how healthy food is, but for the most part we find pretty small impacts on consumption choices,” Eli Liebman, an assistant economics professor at the University of Georgia and the study’s author, wrote.
Habit, convenience, price and brand recognition were much more likely to impact whether a consumer picks up a given product.
Recent research from brand strategy agency MBLM found that Chick-fil-A, Starbucks SBUX and McDonald’s MCD are the food chains that elicit the strongest emotional connection for American consumers.
With food prices rising by 10.4% between June 2021 and 2022, price is another not-so-insignificant factor in what consumers pick off the shelf or a menu — a recent Placer.ai report found that traffic to McDonald’s and Chipotle (CMG) – Get Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. Report has been through-the-roof this summer despite both chains raising the average price of things on their menu by 6%.
“In the end, [nutrition labels are] only one factor in the decisions that people make,” Liebman writes.