Will New Nutrition Labels Help?


The last time the FDA changed the labels for the nutritional information of foods was 1993. Much has changed since then in terms of nutrition and food consumption. Most notably, there have been significant increases in the rates of overweight and obese Americans. In the years between 1988 and 1994, approximately 23% of the population was obese and 55% was overweight, but by 2010, 36% were obese and 69% were overweight. This trend is coupled with similar increases in cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension, and high blood pressure. There are two major factors that contribute to these increases: diet and exercise. Many have suggested that to encourage consumers to change their diet, they must provide necessary nutritional information and present it in a way that is easy to process and understand. For instance, some cities have started requiring restaurants to include basic nutritional information on menus so that consumers can make more educated decisions when eating out.

Currently, almost all packaged products in the US require nutritional labels. Despite this, many Americans still fail to make healthy dietary choices. While there are many reasons for this, the FDA has suggested that better labeling, that was clearer and easier to comprehend, could help improve consumers’ decisions. To improve nutrition labels on foods, the FDA has proposed two significant changes to the current standards. One is a reformatting of the current nutritional facts layout, which would emphasize calories and serving size (see Figure 1). The other change would be adjusting serving sizes to reflect what consumers actually consume. Clearly, according to this standard, many of the labels are inaccurate. For instance, the majority of consumers eat more than the 12 chips in one sitting, even though this listed as one serving size for potato chips.


To assess the effectiveness of the proposed changes to label formats and serving sizes, Chris Hydock and Anne Wilson conducted a study in which consumers evaluated the healthiness of foods and the helpfulness of the proposed labels as well as the current labels. The study presented consumers with three food items, a 20 oz. bottle of soda, a frozen pizza, and an 8 oz. bag of chips. Consumers were presented with a picture of each produkt followed by a picture of its nutritional facts label. Consumers were randomly assigned to view the current label, the proposed label, or an alternate proposed label. Each label was also presented with nutritional information for the existing serving size values or nutritional information for 1.5 times the existing serving size, which is closer to the proposed FDA serving size adjustments. Lastly, nutritional label information was presented for either 10 seconds, to mimic an in-store viewing, or for an unlimited quantity of time to allow for careful review. Consumers then indicated how healthy they perceived each item to be and how informative or helpful they found the labels.


Two important patterns emerged in the results:

1. When consumers viewed labels that depicted the larger serving sizes, consumers perceived the food to be less healthy. This result is consistent with the goals of the FDA; foods labeled with larger serving sizes will increase perceptions of unhealthyness and in turn hopefully decrease the amounts Americans consume.

2. Consumers found the proposed label and alternate label to be more helpful when allowed only a brief, ten-second view. But, when given unlimited time to look at the label, consumers found the original label to be more helpful than the proposed and alternate labels. This result is particularly important because consumers typically only briefly look at nutritional labels when shopping, and labels should be designed accordingly. In fact, an independent pilot study revealed that the median time spent looking at a nutrition label in a store is approximately 10.5 seconds.


These results have important implications for future policy on nutritional labeling. The most important impending change to nutritional labels seems to be the proposed change to serving size. This will likely come as a welcome change to consumer advocates who often argue that smaller-than-reality serving sizes can be seen as a method of deceiving consumers into believing products are less healthy than they are in reality.

Also notable is the fact that the newly proposed label presentations were rated as more helpful in the brief viewing scenario. This can be attributed to the fact that the proposed labels achieve their goal by prominently displaying the most important information on nutritional labels. Additionally, the brief viewing scenario was independently determined to closely match how long consumers actually spend looking at labels. Together, these results support the FDA’s proposed changes to nutritional labeling.

Chris Hydock

Assistant Professor of Research

Chris Hydock is an Assistant Professor of Research and the Research Director of the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research. He earned a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the Psychology Department at George Washington University and BA in Psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  In addition to conducting research on consumer behavior, he is helping to further develop the behavioral research lab for the McDonough School of Business.

Anne Wilson

Research Associate

Anne Wilson is a Research Associate for the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research. Anne aids in the development, design, and implementation of research. Anne also supports other various initiatives and projects within the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research. Anne earned her BA in Psychology and English from Georgetown University in 2013.

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