A trip to the grocery store can be an overwhelming experience. With tens of thousands of products to choose from, how can a consumer decide which are best? While the Nutrition Facts label points out important nutritional features of each product using a consistent format, many food companies are turning to front-of-the-package (FOP) labeling and grocery chains are implementing at-shelf labeling to quickly and easily help consumers make healthy choices. Each uses different rating systems in an effort to provide a simplified tool for consumers. A new online rating system, GoodGuide.com, rates a variety of brand labels, not only on nutritional content, but adds the dimensions of environmental performance such as energy usage, and social performance such as labor practices. GoodGuide’s database of products is available through its website, by text messaging the product bar code, or through downloading an iPhone application. Thus technology-savvy consumers can have access to each product’s information while shopping.
With all of this information available, will consumers make healthier choices? That remains to be seen. Little research has been conducted on whether FOP or at-shelf labeling will result in consumer diets that are more nutrient-dense or lower in calories. In an effort to increase diets with high nutrient ratings, will consumers consume diets that are lower in nutrients or beneficial food components that are not included in the rating system? With a variety of rating schemes in the marketplace, will consumers become more confused? Will the addition of the environmental and social dimensions simplify the decision-making process, or make it more complex? How will the consumer diet be affected by the presence of the environmental and social dimension? For example, will a consumer choose a product with more calcium, but with a low rating for labor practices?
While rating systems and labeling are designed to increase healthful food choices, they do not take into account three major factors in a consumer food decision: price, taste and convenience. Thus, consumers still need to factor in their own formulas for product choices. While front-of-package and at-shelf labels may be useful, turn the package over—the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient labels still have a great deal of useful information that can help you find the product that is right for you.
Nancy Cohen, PhD, RD, LDN
Professor and Head, Dept. of Nutrition
Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst