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Numbers, Phrasing and Formatting Confuse Consumers Examining Food Labels

The Numbers Problem
Product labels on foods are supposed to make things easier for consumers, but they can sometimes end up doing just the opposite. According to Neha Khandpur of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health's Department of Nutrition, studies have indicated that the numbers and percentages prevalent on many food stickers and labels tend to confuse consumers, which may result in shoppers making unwise product and portion selections.

"If we can come up with strategies to improve consumers' ability to understand the labels' content, it will mean that a huge segment of the society that previously was not able to access that information will now understand it and, we hope, make healthier food choices for themselves," said Khandpur, as quoted on the School of Public Health's website.

Khandpur and her research partner, Christina Roberto of the Psychology of Eating and Consumer Health Lab, are researching ways to better inform shoppers as part of the United States Food and Drug Administration's upcoming nutrition label format revamp. The new labels are still being designed, but they may include a qualitative approach that categorizes the levels of particular nutrients as high, medium or low. Another tactic could include using units of measurement that are more accessible for consumers, such as teaspoons rather than grams.

The Phrasing Problem
Of course, numbers are only part of the confusion. There's also the issue of terms like "low-fat" and "sugar-free," what they actually mean, what qualifies companies to use them and whether their true definitions match what consumers infer when browsing store shelves. As CBS pointed out, "low-fat" and "sugar-free" are both federally regulated claims. The former means a product contains less than 3 grams of fat per serving, while the latter means an item has under 0.5 grams of sugar per serving and does not contain any sugars as an ingredient. However, other buzz phrases that aren't federally regulated may sound good but mean very little. CBS' Mitch Lipka examined a few such claims, including:

  • "Doctor-recommended": A phrase as vague as "doctor-recommended" leaves plenty of room for interpretation, which is exactly what advertising departments are counting on. "Assuming it's true, such a phrase could literally mean that a single doctor liked the way it tasted and recommended a friend try it," Lipka pointed out.
  • "Farm-raised": The term "farm-raised" evokes a certain image that marketers hope will help sell their products, but what does it really mean? As the National Chicken Council pointed out, "All chickens are raised on farms, so any chicken could be labeled 'farm-raised.'"
  • "Free-range": Some individuals who are concerned about how the creatures that make up our food chain are treated elect to avoid eating meat (vegetarians) or even all animal products (vegans). Others commit to only purchasing items produced under humane conditions, but determining whether animals were actually treated humanely can be tricky. "The only legal requirement to use the ['free-range'] claim is that the animal was allowed access to the outdoors," wrote Lipka. "It doesn't mean they ever did go outside." That being said, it doesn't mean they didn't, either, which is why this phrase can be so thorny to unpack.

The Formatting Problem
Ingredient lists and nutrition panels can get lengthy, which is where the importance of proper formatting and high-resolution printing comes in. Lightning Labels' professional-quality custom labels and stickers make it easy to include all necessary information in small but legible text, providing consumers with everything they need to know while still leaving room for the design elements that will likely attract shoppers to the product in the first place.