- FDA will do consumer research on the most effective way to communicate nutritional information on the front of food packages. The agency published a notice of the upcoming research project in the Federal Register this week for comments.
- FDA plans to hire a contractor to offer an online questionnaire to 3,000 residents selected to represent different ages, genders, education and backgrounds consistent with the most recent Census results. Participants will be shown different formats of front-of-pack labels and will answer questions on product content, label perceptions and purchase intent.
- Establishing a front-of-pack labeling regime was one of the commitments President Joe Biden made at the beginning of last fall’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health.
There has been talk about requiring front-of-pack labeling on food products for years.
In 2011, the Consumer Brands Association — then known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association — and the Food Industry Association (FMI) — unveiled their voluntary Facts Up Front program, which several manufacturers use to tell consumers the amount of calories, saturated fat, sodium, total sugars — and potentially beneficial nutrients — per serving. FDA supported the initiative, saying that the structure “may contribute to FDA’s public health goals,” according to a 2012 Food Navigator article.
In August, the Center for Science in the Public Interest joined with the Association of SNAP Nutrition Education Administrators and the Association of State Public Health Nutritionists to petition FDA to mandate simple front-of-pack nutritional label similar to those in other countries. In a release about the petition, CSPI says behavioral research has shown Facts Up Front labeling fails to influence consumer choices. A study last year by research platform Attest found only 9% of consumers could identify the healthiest choice among six cereal bars using front-of-pack labeling.
Simpler, clearer and required labeling, CSPI’s release said, may be able to do the job better.
FDA is working to put that to the test. Supporting documents available with the Federal Register entry show that some of the designs that will be tested are very similar to Facts Up Front, with some monochromatic and some with “traffic light” colors to show when a product is high or low in saturated fat, sugar or sodium, as well as fiber and calcium. Some are small “Nutrition Tips” boxes that look like a smaller version of the back-of-package Nutrition Facts, using words, colors, quantities or percentages to inform consumers of the nutritional content of a product. And others are small “High In” boxes that would tell consumers the undesirable nutrients a product has in large amounts.
While front-of-package labeling may need an overhaul to better serve consumers, the current method has been shown to be effective in one respect. A 2020 Journal of Marketing study that looked at 21,096 products using Facts Up Front found a relationship between front-of-pack labelings and better nutritional quality.
This isn’t the only front-of-packaging scheme FDA is looking into right now. It’s also been studying the effectiveness of a “healthy” symbol, which could tell consumers at a glance whether the product meets FDA’s definition of the term.
But while studies are important, they are not necessarily actions. And while it’s clear the process to add front-of-pack labeling is starting, the bigger questions at hand now is what the studies will find, and whether they will lead to changes.