Food package labels can contain multiple forms of nutrition information to which consumers are exposed when making decisions: ingredient lists, nutrient content and health claims, functional food claims, front of package symbols and logos, how the food was produced and distributed (e.g., organic, fair trade), industry marketing, and product photos. In a study by our lab, we found that more than 50% of Canadian food products contained nutritional information in addition to the Nutrition Facts table. Although nutrition label information is meant to help consumers make healthier food choices, the amount of label information is confusing for consumers and has been criticized as a form of industry marketing.
The Nutrition Facts table
Consumers are generally confused by the Nutrition Facts table. Studies generally tend to show that consumers can make simple comparisons between similar products; however, many have difficulty understanding how much of a product or a particular nutrient they should eat, and how to evaluate the information, such as whether a specific level of a particular nutrient is healthy or not.
Front of Package (FOP) Labelling
Front of Package (FOP) labelling or comparable on-shelf systems provide a simplified summary of the healthiness of food products using symbols, logos, and designs. FOP systems are widespread in the Canadian marketplace, yet there are no specific regulations governing their use. We have identified 158 unique FOP systems on foods in the Canadian marketplace. FOP systems are proprietary (i.e., manufacturer or non-profit owned), each with a unique format and nutrient criteria. Data from our lab show that FOP systems in the Canadian marketplace may be misleading consumers:
- In one study, we found that although a large proportion of Canadian food products qualify for common third-party and manufacturer developed FOP systems, few products that meet the systems criteria are identified by their symbols. Given this, consumers cannot rely on these FOP systems to identify products of superior nutritional quality.
- In another study, we compared the amount of calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar in products with FOP symbols, and different FOP symbol types, to products without symbols. We found that FOP symbols are being used to market foods that are no more nutritious than foods without this type of marketing.
Despite concerns that the presence of multiple FOP systems may be confusing and misleading to consumers, the government has rejected recommendations to implement a single, standardized FOP system claiming that the current unregulated marketplace is already meeting the needs of Canadians.
Nutrient Content Claims
Although a great deal of research and educational efforts has been focused on the Nutrition Facts table, nutrition-related claims on food labels in Canada have received little attention. Nutrient content claims are regulated by Health Canada, and are used to help consumers choose foods containing more or less of a particular nutrient. Our lab showed that nutrient content claims can be found on nearly half of Canadian food and beverage packages. The problem is that these claims are regulated on a single nutrient basis (e.g., fat) without considering the overall nutritional quality of the food (e.g., calories, sugar, sodium), which can lead to more favourable and potentially misleading evaluations of the healthfulness of the food (known as the “halo effect”).
In regard to fat claims (the most prevalent type of nutrient content claim), many consumers, and particularly overweight consumers, have a tendency to underestimate calorie content in foods with fat claims, leading to overconsumption of these “low fat” foods. This led us to compare the calorie amounts in products with fat claims versus products without fat claims. We found that most foods sold in Canada with fat claims have virtually the same calories as the full-fat versions. Therefore, rather than low fat claims leading consumers to eat less calories as they are intended to do, these claims are actually leading consumers to eat more in serving themselves larger portions and increasing their calorie intakes.
Disease Risk Reduction Claims
Disease risk reduction claims are statements that link a food or a constituent of a food to reducing the risk of developing a diet-related disease or condition (e.g., osteoporosis, cancer, hypertension, etc.) in the context of the total diet. Disease risk reduction claims are the most highly regulated claims in Canada and the wording is very prescribed. Since disease risk reduction claims are made in the context of the total diet, they have multiple claim specific criteria. This protects consumers by ensuring that the foods carrying a disease risk reduction claim do not have any other characteristics that may be counterproductive to the risk reduction of the food of interest. For example, a food that carries a disease risk reduction claim on sodium must be low in sodium as well as low in saturated fat for cardiovascular disease prevention. However, research from our lab shows that compared to most other types of claims in Canada, disease risk reduction claims are less common.
This may be of concern because a study from our lab showed that consumers do not always differentiate between the different types of claims in the market place, especially when there is a high level of familiarity with the food-health relationship (i.e., sodium and hypertension). A nutrient content claim, which does not mention health and only has one criteria, performs as well as a disease risk reduction claim in terms of purchasing intentions and healthfulness perception. Whereas another study showed that when the familiarity of the food health relationship is low (i.e., plant sterols and cholesterol lowering), disease risk reduction claims performed better than nutrient content claims and consumers appreciated the additional information provided by the disease risk reduction claim. These findings provide support for more stringent criteria for foods with nutrient content claims, especially when there is a high level of familiarity with the food-health relationship.
Numerous organizations such as Dietitians of Canada, the Heart and Stroke Foundations, and the World Health Organization have acknowledged the importance of food and beverage marketing to children. Since children are especially vulnerable to marketing, the nutritional quality of products targeted specifically to them can play a crucial role in their overall diet and health. Children’s marketing comes in many forms, from fun shaped cookies, to interactive games on packaging, to catchy slogans. In a study from our lab (in publication), it was found that products with children’s marketing were generally of lower nutritional quality (higher in fats, sugars, or salt) than similar products that did not use children’s marketing. Therefore, it is clear that this type of marketing currently promotes unhealthy food choices and dietary habits in children, and could be a factor in the rise of childhood obesity. For future research, our lab will be analyzing changes in the prevalence and nutritional quality of children’s products as the food supply changes.