Labels Don’t Deter Poor Food Choices

Discussion
Jul 12, 2006
George Anderson

By George Anderson


New research reveals most American consumers read food labels for nutritional information. Many, however, do not let that get in the way of what they’re going to buy.


According to a poll by AP-Ipsos, 44 percent of consumers will still buy a product after reading a label that tells them the item is loaded with calories, fat and sugar.


Loren Cook, a consumer from Marysville, Washington, told The Associated Press she reads labels “to see what I’m getting myself into.” Having done that, Ms. Cook says the
information on labels “doesn’t make my buying decision for me. It’s mostly a curiosity factor.”


Another consumer, Tammy Fultz, of Independence, Kentucky said she checks labels to make better nutrition choices.


Unfortunately, said Ms. Fultz, “none of that really matters. In the end, you still eat way more than you should and exercise way less than you should.”


Researchers say that consumers such as Ms. Cook and Fultz are not unusual.


According to the AP-Ipsos poll, the majority of consumers do read food labels. Reading labels, however, has clearly not translated into healthier eating as roughly two-thirds
of Americans are overweight.


Robert Blendon, professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health, said consumers do read labels. Most, however, do not use the information “as part of a total diet to really lower
their weight.”


Discussion Question: Do you agree that most consumers read food labels and many then make poor nutritional choices anyway? Do you believe, as some do, that
food labels need to be changed to deal more directly with the high level of obesity in the U.S.?

Robert Blendon is among those who believe changes are needed in how products are labeled. While Prof. Blendon doesn’t suggest that new labels will eliminate
obesity in the country, he does think there would be more value if, for example, labels stated the total calories in a package. That way, he contends, consumers wouldn’t be left
to do their own calculations based on the current per serving system.

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12 Comments on "Labels Don’t Deter Poor Food Choices"


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Ryan Mathews
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

Of course, people make bad food choices. I agree that to a certain degree people are confused by labels and/or “health” claims: red wine — good or bad? Yes; caffeine — good or bad? Yes; sodium — good or bad? Yes! Still, people’s eating habits are ruled by habit, economic constraints, emotional need and taste. Does good information stop bad behavior? Just ask any smoker.

Laura Davis-Taylor
Guest
Laura Davis-Taylor
14 years 7 months ago

I absolutely believe that people read labels and that many make poor decisions anyway. Some do it because they are seeking short term pleasure, some because they are food addicts and some from lack of nutritional education. However, there are many hidden realities to food substances and additives that are carefully disguised. A recent article I read stated that 1 out of 3 of our children today will grow up to become diabetic. Very, very scary.

It seems that if we had better education — and disclosure — on today’s popular food additives, we might have a better chance on getting in front of the epidemic. However, we are all ultimately responsible for our own choices and it’s also our responsibility to understand what we are putting in out bodies. And, whatever implications come from those choices.

Mark Heckman
Guest
14 years 7 months ago
Clearly shoppers tend to exaggerate their self-reported attention to nutrition and health when queried about their own shopping habits. However, observational research tends to support the notion that certain categories like yogurt, special dietary foods, new products, etc., do prompt some label review, but among more commonly purchased categories such as carbonated beverage, cookies and crackers, and salty snacks, “grab and go” is still the norm. The evidence of passive shopping is overwhelming. When you holistically examine the shopping behaviors of consumers at the supermarket, the average time it takes for a consumer to make a purchase decision for categories like cookies and crackers, peanut butter, and cheese in the dairy case all average under 10 seconds…not a lot of label reading going on there! Further and more telling about the extent of close product examination is the fact the over half the shopping trips in the average size supermarket are over in 8 minutes or less. There is no doubt there are shoppers that are sensitive to nutrition and product ingredients, but this group… Read more »
Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

Food labels give information people want. There’s no doubt that some people’s behavior is influenced by labeling, since labels are a primary marketing tool. But no marketing tool is 100% effective. Years ago, there was a skull and crossbones on some products, but people bought them anyway. The Surgeon General cigarette pack warnings don’t stop all smokers. Knowledge doesn’t always lead to action. Over time, thousands of repetitions may change behavior, especially if great-tasting alternatives become available.

Carissa Luch
Guest
Carissa Luch
14 years 7 months ago

Making choices about individual food items should not be confused with consumer usage of labels to help guide an overall food strategy. Keep in mind that people tend to use a “save and spend” strategy on their overall diet — I can save some points by eating “healthy food A” and then indulge later on “bad food B.” Even people with generally healthy diets will indulge on less than healthy foods as treats! (Anyone for cheesecake?) As defined here, even they would be guilty of making bad choices). Food selection becomes a problem when the majority of the diet is full of items that are less healthy (and at overly large portion sizes), to the exclusion of the more healthful items.

john rydin
Guest
john rydin
14 years 7 months ago

It’s all about moderation and rewards. People need to be smart about what they eat and certainly label information helps the consumer. If I want Ice Cream, chips, or a candy bar… I’ll have it and not feel guilty about it. But, I also don’t over indulge and I don’t eat huge portions. That is the key. Why do people keep eating when they are full?

All the information and labeling is just confusing and frustrating the consumer as it is. Now retailers want to put a rating system on shelf to give the consumer more information. Give me a break! People are smart enough to know what’s good or bad / right or wrong. They will continue to make bad choices, no matter how much information we give them!

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

I was recently in Albertsons pricing cereal bars, and though the price was good on the house brand, I ended up going w/ Target’s house brand instead. It wasn’t (just) Target’s lower price, it was the fact that T’s had 0 trans-fat, and A’s didn’t … an easy and obvious point of differentiation, and the type of decision that comes to mind when I think of “provides useful information.” I agree w/ Jeff that the market aisle is no place for an impromptu class in advanced math, but I think the current labeling requirements are adequate. They provide info on points that aren’t obvious (see above) for people who are interested in them….. no amount of labeling is going to help people who equate “family-pak” w/ snack.

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Guest
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
14 years 7 months ago

I have no evidence to substantiate this, but I believe people used to read labels more than they do now. There is so much confusion associated with the information provided on labels that the take-away is limited. There is also so much prepared food without information being bought — another indicator that the information is less vital to the decision making process. Labels deter poor food choices among the profile of consumer that is looking to deter poor food choices and was probably not going to make too bad of a choice anyway. Those that aren’t poor food choice sensitive are probably going to skip the label read or go through the motions and then buy what they want to anyway.

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
14 years 7 months ago
Food labels are a beginning for consumers, not an end in themselves. Retailers and manufacturers can play an important role in helping consumers to make healthier choices. Consumers are moving toward healthier diets and looking for guidance in making decisions about food choices. The recent FMI and Prevention “Shopping for Health 2005 Report” showed that 60 percent of shoppers surveyed believe their diets could be healthier, and 70 percent for shoppers with children. Convenience is so important to today’s busy consumers and retailers can do more to incorporate health into convenience products and services. For example, a weekly menu or recipe can provide consumers with meal solutions that can be made with few ingredients in 20-30 minutes. Products to make the meal can be located in a visible and consistent place within the store. Products can be demonstrated in store and ideas can be presented in weekly ads, on websites and in store materials. Dietitians can be available in store to give “stand up talks” to customers to explain food labels, promote healthy meal solutions… Read more »
Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
14 years 7 months ago

As long as fat, sugar, and calories equate to better taste in people’s minds….

I think, as others suggest, that the labels are informative, but not educational. Most people don’t look at a label listing 400 calories and think “hmmm, that’s over 20% of what I should eat *all day*. Serving sizes are unrealistic. How many people open a package of cookies and eat one? Or eat 1/2 a vending machine size package of something? Exactly.

We get food pyramids and complex diet plans and contradictory info about carbs or red meat or whatever. I think a much better plan would be a concerted effort on the part of the government and health care systems to simplify the message about eating healthy, and give people some easy to remember benchmarks. Then make the labels carry some easy to find data vs. those benchmarks. “Eating 2 of these is all the calories you should eat in 1 day.” Something like that. 😉

David Zahn
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

My suspicion is that the consumer is confused…is unsure of what constitutes “healthy” or “better for them” (low fat?, high protein?, no carbs?, no processed this or that?, etc.). Furthermore, they are often unsure of what they are reading and cannot translate the chemistry into understanding (is fructose or sucrose good for me? Do I want glycemic or not? Is poly some mumbo jumbo something I need to avoid?, etc.). Lastly, the consumer often does not want to give up taste ( I can eat food that tastes like cardboard and be healthy, but miserable – or I can enjoy the sweet, salty, fatty foods I have come to love and be happy).

The level of contradictory information, inability to decipher what is truly in the product, and desire to maintain taste sensation is likely causing many consumers to read labels, get frustrated, and then make the purchase anyway (because they CAN assess taste…even if they cannot make heads or tails out of the rest).

Bernice Hurst
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

There is lots of evidence that an increasing number of people are making healthier choices. Obviously there is a difference between healthy and healthier and still many people not making the best possible choices but labels are an essential tool in enabling them to make those choices if and when they choose to. A convoluted sentence but self-explanatory, I think, if read carefully. Labels are read but are not yet sufficiently self-explanatory. Making them simpler and clearer is a useful and important exercise that should not be abandoned because not “enough” people yet are either able to understand them or taking note of their content.

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