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Move over, flashy fonts and designs, front-of-package (FOP) nutrition labeling is making sure that when buying a product, consumers don’t just see eye-catching elements at first glance. FOP labeling has progressively become a focal point for the food industry, promising shoppers a quick-glance guide to the nutritional value of products. With consumers increasingly seeking healthier options, these labels could be instrumental in influencing purchase decisions.

As part of its Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, the White House released a national strategy which included U.S. Food and Drug Administration initiatives to empower shoppers with information including developing an updated definition and voluntary symbol for a “healthy” claim, front-of-package labeling and dietary guidance statements on food labels. The FDA has also initiated consumer research to explore the development of a FOP label and is continuing to evaluate comments and recommendations on front-of-package labeling through August 2026; to date it has received over 41,000 responses.

The just-released International Food Information Council consumer study, Front-of-Package Nutrition Labeling: Front & Center Food Information to Encourage Healthy Choices, was designed to better understand how consumers use nutritional labels and other information on food packaging, and sheds substantial light on the perception and effectiveness of these labels. This survey also underscores why health and wellness professionals need to comprehend and communicate these insights effectively to their internal teams.

IFIC’s comprehensive study reveals critical findings about consumer interactions with front-of-package nutrition labels. Here are a few of the topline findings:

  • Findings from the IFIC front-of-package consumer study suggest that no single front-of-package scheme is superior to any other front-of-package scheme in helping consumers identify the healthiest and least healthy choices.
  • When front-of-package schemes include calories and dietary fiber, the front-of-package scheme may improve correct selection of the “healthiest” front-of-package label. Participants exposed to front-of-package scheme variations that included calories and dietary fiber along with added sugars, saturated fat and sodium, correctly selected the “healthiest” front-of-package label.
  • Front-of-package labels with color may lower perceptions of a food’s healthfulness. This finding was a bit of a surprise. Results from this study show that front-of-package labels with color may lead people to assume that products containing such labels may be less healthy than nutritionally identical products with black and white front-of-package labels. Two of FDA’s FOP prototypes incorporate green, yellow and red color blocks over interpretative language used to describe low, medium and high levels of added sugars, saturated fat and sodium. IFIC consumer data shows that color may lead people to assume a product using color on its front-of-package label is less healthy than a nutritionally identical product with a black and white front-of-package label. IFIC’s survey did not quantify the reasonings behind this finding, but it very well may be that in today’s world, food packaging is so color intense that these color-coded prototypes became “invisible” to the consumer, hence the outcome.
  • The nutrients consumers use to judge healthfulness depends on the product. While this finding should surprise no one, it’s important for brands and retailers using in-store and online attributes to understand that the results from this study point to differences in the nutrition information that people value for judging the healthfulness of different products. The topline is that in order to communicate health attributes properly, we must identify at a category level. IFIC found that when given a list of 16 items required on the Nutrition Facts label, and asked the most important piece of information to know about breakfast cereal, 52% of study participants reported added sugars and 37% reported dietary fiber. In contrast, these percentages are significantly higher than study participants who reported added sugars (40%) and dietary fiber (16%) were the most important piece of information about canned soup. 71% of study participants reported sodium as the most important piece of information about canned soup and 35% reported saturated fat. These percentages are significantly higher than study participants who reported sodium (39%) and saturated fat (27%) as the most important piece of information about breakfast cereal.

IFIC’s conclusions begin with the note that the consumer’s voice is often missing in this debate on front-of-pack labeling schemes and that IFIC’s study can help inform a variety of stakeholders on preferred FOP labeling approaches. IFIC also points out that for any new food label to be successful, it will require significant consumer education.

While the FDA’s initiative on front-of-package labels (or for a “healthy” label) is not likely to be enacted for years to come, in the meantime, retail dietitians and all health and wellness professionals can nudge shoppers to make better-for-you choices by helping them in the following ways:

  • Educating on label literacy: One of the critical functions of dietitians is to educate consumers on understanding and utilizing the current, albeit somewhat confusing and disparate, front-of-package labels. This involves explaining what different symbols, colors and ratings mean, and how to interpret these in the context of their dietary needs.
  • Emphasizing the importance of comprehensive label reading: Front-of-package labels may provide a quick overview. Retail dietitians should advocate for a more comprehensive understanding by encouraging consumers to read the full nutrition facts and ingredient lists and go beyond the marketing claims or FOP information.
  • Addressing misconceptions: The study’s findings underscore the need for retail dietitians to address common misconceptions related to front-of-package labeling. For instance, consumers might misinterpret low-fat labels as entirely healthy without considering other factors such as sugar content.
  • Tailoring health advice: Understanding the demographic variations in front-of-package label use allows dietitians to tailor their advice more effectively. Younger consumers might be more open to digital integration, such as using apps that scan and interpret FOP labels, whereas older consumers might benefit from straightforward guidance and educational sessions.

IFIC’s study on consumer perceptions of front-of-package nutrition labeling comes at an important point in time as the FDA continues its path to standardize its graphic treatments for both FOP and the “healthy” claim. To be successful, it’s critical that these two efforts be steeped in both science and consumer understanding, and not decided by a committee.

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