Food Labels Nudge Diners to Eat More Healthfully

A study of food labels in dining halls shows that when people know the calories and fat content in foods, they lean toward more healthful fare.

Despite municipal and federal legislation in the pipelines for large restaurants and dining facilities to put labels on their foods, there was very little hard data to show such labels are effective in helping people make healthful food choices, until now.

The study, published online ahead of print in the journal Appetite in April, is important because obesity and related diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, are rising steadily in the United States. According to recent estimates, 33% of US adults are overweight, 35.7% are obese, and 6.3% are extremely obese. Furthermore, the increase in US body weight since the late 1970s parallels an increase in consumption of food away from home.

"Our study is one of the few definitive studies demonstrating, at least in a university dining hall, that putting calories and fat content on the label of various foods purchased in the dining hall produces a reduction in calories and fat content purchased," says David Levitsky, PhD, a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University and a coauthor of the study.

Cornell Dining shared data on food purchases in most Cornell dining halls. The data spanned three semesters before and three semesters after food labels were introduced on individual food servings. Labels included calories, fat, and nutrient content. Labeled foods also were categorized as high calorie, low calorie, high fat, and low fat. The researchers analyzed how food choices changed after the introduction of labels.

The results revealed a 7% reduction of mean total calories and total fat purchased per week. Also, the percent of sales of low-fat and low-calorie foods increased, while sales of high-calorie and high-fat foods decreased. "The reason we found an effect is that we had a tremendous amount of data," Levitsky says. "It's a small but significant effect."

The findings support a theory that suggests US weight gain has occurred slowly with gradual increases in daily caloric intake, Levitsky says. Meanwhile, this study demonstrates that small nudges actually can help reduce caloric intake, he adds.

"In this obesogenic world, consumers need all the help they can get to resist the temptations that the food industry uses to have us increase consumption," Levitsky says. "Insisting that food labels be visible on the foods we purchase may be the kind of help people need to resist the epidemic of obesity."

— Source: Cornell University