More accurate nutrition scores for traffic light nutrition symbols

Simplistic front-of-pack labels may be misleading in evaluating negative nutrients and overall healthfulness of foods, finds research published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

Consumers in the U.S. have faced an onslaught of front-of-package nutrition symbols, including the "Smart Choices" single summary indicator, and manufacturer symbols from Pepsico, Kellogg's, Mars, Kraft, and the Grocery Manufacturers of America. Due to their simplicity and suggested ease of use, the intent of the symbols is to help consumers make better choices in constructing a balanced diet. New research published by the American Marketing Association finds that consumers' intent to buy a product (with some negative nutrient levels) increases when the package features front-of-pack nutrition symbols compared to when it does not. However, simple symbols can lull consumers into thinking a food is more healthful than it may actually be.

The research titled "Is Simpler Always Better? Consumer Evaluations of Front-of-Package Nutrition Symbols" appears in the fall issue of the AMA's Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. The study's researchers, Craig Andrews, Scot Burton, and Jeremy Kees, created an experiment after the U.S. Food & Drug Administration issued a call in 2010 for more research into how consumers interpret and use front-of-package symbols. They examined how 520 adult consumers perceived a product differently when a simple front-of-pack symbol, traffic light front-of-pack symbol, or no front-of-pack symbol (control) is presented, both with and without the nutrition facts panel.

When consumers do not access the nutrition facts panel, the more detailed traffic light, front-of-pack symbol results in significantly greater nutrition accuracy scores than the simple icon or the no symbol control for this food with both negative and positive nutrient levels. Also, consumers who are more (versus less) nutritionally-conscious are more likely to use the detailed nutrition facts panel on the package back. Overall, simpler front-of-package symbols can lead to (misleading) favorable evaluations of negative nutrients and overall healthfulness of foods, but the more detailed traffic light symbols result in more accurate nutrition scores. The authors say a next step for manufacturers and public health agencies is to find a better balance between detail and ease of use.