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Front-of-Package Labeling: What Kind of Information Works?

Effectiveness of Labels Can Depend on Environment
Knowing what information to include on package labels can be difficult for sellers, especially considering the amount of controversy pertaining to consumers' increasing demand for healthier options and more transparency from food companies. Some say that the best approach to grabbing the attention of shoppers and avoiding any confusion they may experience is to place bold, easy-to-see numbers on the front panel, whereas others argue that quantitative information can be manipulated and therefore misunderstood. For example, people may read the amount of calories or sugar that a food item contains and see that it is a low number, failing to take into account that that value represents what is included in a serving size much smaller than what they typically eat in one sitting.

However, Medical Xpress recently reported that, according to researchers from the University of Arkansas and University of Missouri, when it comes to what works on front-of-package labeling, there pretty much isn't any one simple answer as to which is the better. 

"Our research suggests that there is no single, 'one-size-fits-all' front-of-package nutrition label that is suitable for all the different types of situations in which consumers are evaluating and choosing products," said Elizabeth Howlett, a marketing professor at the University of Arkansas, according to Medical Xpress.

Evaluative versus Objective Shopping
Making decisions at the last second is something most shoppers do while in the store, with many of their final opinions and reactions based on the labeling and packaging of the products. According to Medical Xpress, consumers often engage in what is known as comparative information processing, which means they review and compare products at the same time, evaluating a number of different factors on the label, such as nutrition values and calorie counts.

As we mentioned above, though, there is one issue with the latter: There are a lot of variances between how this information is measured, yet there is only one, uniform Nutrition Facts label that is used to present the details. Recently, however, the United States Food and Drug Administration announced that it would be updating this label for the first time in over 20 years. Among the changes are a mandatory "added sugars" portion and making some of the important health-related information stand out more.

Some food companies and marketers have started considering the use of evaluative information to present nutritional data to shoppers. Earlier this year, a study was published in the Journal of Dieticians of Australia Association that examined the front-of-packaging labeling system alternatives known as the Traffic Light System or Health Star Rating. In addition, Food Navigator reported that similar research was conducted in New Zealand. In both cases, the conclusions suggested that these FOP labels can be effective but only if they are used under certain conditions.

Sellers, then, are still left with the question of whether they should use more objective or evaluative information when designing custom labels for their products. 

New Research Findings Suggestions
When Howlett and a team of other marketing professors conducted their study, which was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, they used two different types of front-of-package nutrition labels. The first had quantitative information on it that was straightforward; the other was more evaluative. The researchers discovered that both types of labeling were effective in their own ways, depending on which environment they were used in.

Based on their findings, front-of-package labeling with objective and specific information is more beneficial when used on products that the customer doesn't compare with other items, whereas the opposite is true for when something is being evaluated simultaneously with multiple others.

"Currently, many different types of front-of-package nutrition information formats appear on product labels and their effectiveness in different choice contexts needs to be better understood," explained Christopher Newman, one of the study's researchers, according to MedicalXpress. "We believe that public policy decision makers such as those at the Food and Drug Administration must consider how well the type of nutrition information presented on a product label matches the consumer's specific type of choice task."

Considering the above findings, when creating product labels, it is imperative for sellers to understand the goal of their target audiences to help choose whether they should focus more on objective or evaluative information for front-of-package labeling. For example, if the company is trying to target health-conscious consumers, it might be beneficial to use more evaluative information so the shopper is able to scan the labels easily and see icons or graphics that indicate which item would be the better choice. On the other hand, if a business is selling a more specialty item where perhaps the nutritional data isn't likely to be factored, such as a bottle of wine, it will probably want to go with objective FOP labeling.