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Can front-of-pack labelling encourage healthier food choices?

4 min read
AUTHOR: Ross Carver-Carter

Once upon a time, food came unpackaged and unlabelled – the word of the seller being the only guarantee of its provenance or contents. As you might expect, a lack of regulation led to some interesting ingredient formulations.

A 19th century investigation into milk quality across London found it was commonly cut with eye-raising ingredients such as ‘…starch, chalk, and the brains of sheep’. Other adulterants included ‘treacle, salt, whiting, [and] sugar of lead’ – highly poisonous. 

Thankfully, the law now requires food companies to list the nutrient value and ingredient contents of food products.

Located on the front and back of food packaging, this prime real estate is where food companies converse with consumers, explaining the health benefits and taste qualities of their unique products.

With obesity rates on the rise and sustainability high on the agenda, food labelling offers a potential way to encourage healthier, more green-friendly food choices.

But there are important questions to be asked; first and foremost, does food labelling actually influence our decisions? And if it does, what is the most effective way to present information to encourage healthy, sustainable eating? 

Featuring experts in sensory science, packaging solutions and nutrition, the following podcasts seek to tackle these questions and more. 

Does front-of-pack labelling actually work?

A behind-shot of a young women perusing products on a supermarket shelve

We’ve all encountered food labelling at some point; it’s the text, numbers and logos adorning our favourite food products.

Since 2013, companies have been required by law to list the nutritional content of their food products through the traffic light system, a piece of legislation designed to encourage better nutrition. Since the introduction of nutritional labels, obesity levels have actually risen in the UK.

So, does front of pack information really affect the food choices we make? Are nutritional traffic light systems clear and helpful, or simply confusing? And what impact might sustainability labelling have on our food choices?

To help answer such questions, the Food Matters Live podcast welcomes Joe Tucker, Senior Lecturer in Hospitality and Tourism at the University of West London, and Zoe Davis, a nutritionist for the Consensus Action on Salt, Sugar and Health.

Drawing on their combined expertise, they suggest where food packaging falls short, how it could be improved, and survey it’s impact, if any, on the obesity epidemic.

Do labels and packaging really affect what we taste?

A young man in a denim jacket choosing between two crisp-brands in a supermarket aisle

How much do labels and food packaging affect what we taste when we eat a product? According to a study from the department of sensory science at Ohio State University, a lot.

When presented with three plates of identical biscuits, one labelled ‘customer complaint’, one labelled ‘factory typical’, and another labelled ‘new and improved’, participants ranked them completely differently.

Interestingly, negative language such as ‘customer complaint’ affected taste more noticeably than positive language, something called negativity bias.

Extrapolating these findings, could we use negativity bias to encourage healthier eating patterns among consumers? For example, would warnings on ultra-processed, high fat foods influence how people experience these treats? And on the flip side, could buzzwords like “natural superfood” have the power to make other foods more appealing?

The Food Matters Live Podcast welcomes Christopher T Simons, Associate Professor in Sensory Science at Ohio State University, and the man behind the aforementioned experiment. He explains how brands can leverage these findings to make products more attractive and looks at the implications of his research for government health schemes.

The future of clean and clear labelling, with Brenntag 

Smiling woman scanning QR code on a product while buying in supermarket.

80% of consumers believe product information to be of major importance, with 3 in 5 wanting to know how their food is sourced, transported and packaged. In industry terms, these are referred to as informed and connected consumers, and they’re growing in numbers.

In light of this, it’s crucial that ingredient companies get their front-of-pack labelling right. Made in partnership with Brenntag, this episode explores how food companies can be clear and transparent in their product messaging. We also look to the future and discuss the exciting innovation revolutionising food labelling.

Explore research developments, market trends and ingredient innovation across nutrition in our upcoming Inspiring Nutrition Guide, launching June 2023.