January 4, 2013

Research Shows Using Text, Color Makes Food Labels Easier to Understand

Highlights

  • New research suggests that using text and color to describe nutrient levels is more effective than just using numbers to convey nutritional information
  • The findings are based on a literature review performed by researchers at RTI International
  • The review suggests that labels on the front of food packages and on grocery aisle shelves can help consumers make better food choices

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James Hersey
James Hersey

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. -- As the spotlight on healthy eating and nutrition grows ever brighter, new research suggests that including colorful and graphic nutrition information on product packages helps consumers better understand the information.

According to a literature review conducted by RTI International, using text and color to describe the nutrient levels, rather than just numbers, is a more effective way to ensure consumers understand nutritional information.

A team of researchers found that when labels incorporated text and color to indicate “high,” “medium” or “low” levels of nutrients, they were easier for consumers to interpret than those that used only numbers, such as grams per serving or percent of Recommended Dietary Allowances.

The literature review, published in the January issue of Nutrition Reviews, systematically analyzed 38 studies on consumer responses to nutrition labels on the front of food packages and on grocery aisle shelves to determine which aspects of labels had the strongest impact on consumer attention, understanding and purchasing behavior. 

In general, the studies suggest that labels on the front of food packages and on grocery aisle shelves can help consumers make better food choices. The results may help guide development of nutrition labels that quickly capture the attention of consumers and prompt them to pick healthier foods.

“As standards for nutrition front-of-package and shelf-labeling systems are considered, it is important to know what is most effective in conveying scientifically accurate and useful information to consumers,” said James Hersey, Ph.D., a senior scientist at RTI International and lead author of the study.

This review uncovered a number of knowledge gaps. "Although some research suggests that summary systems may influence consumers to purchase healthier products, more research is needed to assess front-of-package and shelf nutrition labels effects on consumers' shopping and eating behaviors," said Kelly Wohlgenant, policy analyst at RTI and the study's co-author. 

The authors recommend that for the largest public health impact, nutrition label education and communication efforts should target consumers at high risk of obesity-related illness rather than those who are already focused on nutrition.