Food quality, not quantity matters to label lovers

Examining nutrition labels is often recommended by doctors and dietitians to improve food choices, but choice does not always translate to consumption. ©iStock/piotr_malczyk

People who pay attention to nutrition labels are more concerned with the quality of the food they eat, choosing to eat more fruits, vegetables and beans, and shunning potatoes and refined grains.

The findings also extend to observations in those who paid less attention to labels, with fried and sugared foods high on the menu.

Nutrition labels are often seen as a way to extend food choice. However, this study indicates that choice may not always convert to consumption.

Evidence on the effectiveness of labels is mixed, particularly on findings that show behaviour is influenced by labels.

"Previous research has focused on portion control for weight loss or weight management, generally eating less,” explained Dr Brenna Ellison, professor of agriculture and consumer economics at the University of Illinois.

“But, more recent research indicates this may not be the most effective message. By eating less, consumers may feel deprived, or even 'hangry,' which can make it difficult to sustain long-term dietary behaviours,"

"Newer research indicates that eating less of certain types of foods, rather than all foods, may matter more."

The findings may have particular relevance to countries that have adopted certain forms of labelling as a way to improve the health of populations at risk of weight gain.

The UK’s traffic light labelling aims to decrease fast-food and soft drink consumption by scoring its different nutritional content. Salt, calorie, sugar and fat content can either be scored as red for unhealthy, amber for moderate, and green for healthy.

Not all of Europe are on board with this method of labelling. Italy, Portugal and Spain have claimed it would negatively affect marketing for several products and block companies’ freedom to find new healthy eating solutions.

Studying diner habits

Along with Dr Ellison, co-author Dr Mary Christoph from the University of Minnesota began surveying 1,069 diners (39% women) over 18 years on two separate occasions.

Food selections were noted and pre- and post-meal images were taken of diners’ plate.

Photographs were noted to identify the selection, servings, and consumption of specific food categories.

Results showed that in the selection of specific foods, a greater proportion of label users selected fruits (24.3% label users vs. 18.4% non-label users), vegetables (81.7% vs. 67.2%), and beans (20.9% vs. 12.2%), and fewer selected potatoes compared with non-users (43/0% vs. 58.9%).

Marginally more label users selected protein and fewer selected refined grains (90.6% vs. 86.2%).

For food attributes, many diners had meals with added sugars (71.1% vs. 78.5%), fried food (46.8% vs. 62.5%), and solid fats (43.0% vs. 42.2%).

The study commented that although the results show label users eat differently than non-users, the implications pointed towards a need for greater consumption of fruit, vegetables, beans, whole grains and low-fat dairy among both groups.

“Dining facilities may want to increase offerings of nutrient-dense foods (whole grains and vegetables) for example,” Dr Ellison said.

“Or consider product reformulations that creatively incorporate these foods to encourage healthy eating behaviours.”

Portion control

Businesses and organisations have been encouraged to make it easier for customers to make healthier choices.

Initiatives such as the UK’s Public Health Responsibility Deal have suggested one way to help people to eat fewer calories would be to change the portion size or the recipe of a product.

The study pointed to more recent research that argued that the message to simply eat less was not the most effective for weight management.

“This message treats all foods equally (which they are not) and may lead to feelings of deprivation among consumers, making it difficult to sustain long-term changes in dietary behaviour,” the authors said.

“Rather, it has been argued that consumers should focus on eating less high-energy-dense foods and increasing the proportion of low-energy-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. This should reduce overall energy density yet allows for consumption of satisfying portions.”

Source: Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Published online ahead of print: doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2017.01.027

“A Cross-Sectional Study of the Relationship between Nutrition Label Use and Food Selection, Servings, and Consumption in a University Dining Setting.”

Authors: Mary Christoph, Brenna Ellison

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