Study says health labels get shrugs from shoppers

Sources: McDonald’s; Taco Bell; Wendy’s
Jul 22, 2022

These days, products on the grocery shelves and items on menus in fast food and fast casual restaurants usually have some sort of health label. However, a new study finds that most customers do not pay much attention to them.

Familiarity with a brand and product cost are much greater factors for customers choosing a product than whether it’s healthy, which plays only a modest role in the selection process, according to research from the Journal of Marketing Research reported in Discover Magazine.

Using a combination of loyalty program data to determine food choices and interviews to understand purchasing motivations, researchers discovered that health labels have only a small impact on consumption. At fast food restaurants, the posting of calorie counts likewise hardly affects what customers buy. In fact, it appears customers might not even look at the calorie counts for menu items that they buy frequently.

The study comes as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is working to update the definition of the term “healthy” for use on packaging, to provide consumers with more accurate information for informing health-conscious food choices. The government organization is also working on a “healthy” symbol that the industry will be able to voluntarily affix to products that fit the definition.

Canada is taking a similar tack albeit with opposite messaging. Canadian government agency Health Canada is working on a line of warning labels to be placed on the front of packaged products that are high in sugar, sodium and saturated fat.

As health-conscious consumerism picked up in popularity in the mid-2010s, CPG brands, retailers and trade groups began looking for new ways to better inform customers about the health impacts of their purchases.

For instance, in 2016, New Jersey grocer Nojaim Brothers Supermarket partnered with a local university and community agencies to implement the NuVal health rating system on the shelf, to help address public health concerns impacting low-income shoppers.

Raley’s in 2017 rolled out its own eight-icon system of health labeling food products at the shelf.

More recently Raley’s expanded the shelf guide to include 23 product attributes, according to a press release.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is there value in food health labels? Is there a better, more effective way for food health labeling to be done?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Providing health and nutrition information on foods is a good thing, but it's not going to change many minds"
"But in fact, it puts all of the onus on the consumers to “choose” the healthier option and makes them feel judged when they don’t..."
" everyday folks really know the meaning of Non-GMO Project Verified, CF Certified, No BPA, Fair Trade USA, etc.?"

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14 Comments on "Study says health labels get shrugs from shoppers"

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Dr. Stephen Needel

Food health labeling behaves just like green products – if you ask shoppers/consumers, they are all for it, but very few really care. It’s a value judgment that we should only be eating healthy foods, and one that retailers and restaurants need to be careful about imposing on their customers. One logical response to McDonald’s (as an example) posting nutrition content is that people walk out – the same could hold for grocery stores. It’s not our job to tell people what to buy and what to eat.

Neil Saunders

It is useful to have the information available for those that wish to understand what they are consuming. However whether people take notice depends on whether that information is important to them. For many it is not. Why? Because some people just don’t care, and that is fine. For others there is too much information; I mean, who has time to assess 23 attributes when buying products? And for many there is too much confusion with a lot of chopping and changing in what is deemed to be healthy and what is bad for us – so the information just gets ignored.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Merchant Director
4 months 7 days ago

While I was a fan of the NuVal system early in its implementation, it eventually got lost with all the other shelf edge info on a shelf tag or sign. I see more labeling on the actual product now compared to few years ago.

Jeff Weidauer

Providing health and nutrition information on foods is a good thing, but it’s not going to change many minds. The majority of consumers who are concerned about what they eat and use this info aren’t in fast food places to begin with.

Georganne Bender

I find health labels at the grocery store helpful, but they don’t make a huge difference in what I order at a restaurant. I know a Big Mac with fries probably isn’t the healthiest choice, but like most people who choose a No. 1 at McDonald’s, I don’t care.

Labeling foods is a good idea but you can’t manage people to eat better. All you can do is provide information and hope they make smart decisions, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Dave Bruno

Let’s be careful not to judge the value of food health labels based on their impact on fast food menus. People know what they are getting when they choose to eat at fast food restaurants, and healthy options are likely not high on their priority lists. In the grocery aisle, health labels are a much more important part of the food selection process, and the study highlights that labels do make a meaningful difference for people in the “middle” of the health-conscious spectrum: people who are not yet eating as healthy as they desire and want to learn. The study authors indicate that people on the healthy and unhealthy ends of the spectrum – the larger shares of food buyers – know what they are getting and don’t need the labels to guide them. Seems to me the labels are working exactly as they should. Let’s keep looking for labels that make healthy eating choices easier.

Gary Sankary

Personally, I always look at the calories on nutrition labels when I’m making choices in restaurants. I don’t really care, or understand the other data points. And for me, it’s been a godsend to have restaurants print this information on menus. It definitely influences my choices — not that you’d be able to tell, mind you. I applaud efforts to inform consumers about what they’re eating, and then let them make their own choices.

Al McClain

Customers don’t care until they do – when they get diagnosed with something serious that was caused or at least contributed to by their poor diet and other bad habits. Not that retailers or restaurants should force anything on their customers but a little social responsibility in terms of simple messaging to help their customers live longer is a good idea. It will also increase the lifetime value of those customers if we’re looking at it from a purely monetary standpoint as many seem to do these days.

Scott Norris

I’ve had to start reading labels more because I can’t process the new crop of artificial sweeteners like sorbitol and acesulfide postassium – and it’s jawdropping just how many products I have to say “nope” to. Accessible, complete labeling is important because I’d rather make a different choice, rather than having to take sick days.

Steve Montgomery

This is another example of how what people say they want and what they do differ. Everyone says they want to eat healthy but when ordering or buying, what they buy is something that tastes good to them.

Katie Thomas

In the name of making systemic or structural changes, companies put these health labels on foods to seemingly enable consumers to make healthier decisions. But in fact, it puts all of the onus on the consumers to “choose” the healthier option and makes them feel judged when they don’t (we see this often in sustainability initiatives as well).

If brands really want consumers to be healthier, they should eliminate or improve the less healthy options. Or they should acknowledge the role they play in consumers’ lives – if I’m going to a fast food or ice cream restaurant, I may already know this isn’t my healthiest decision. And if it’s my splurge, I’m increasingly annoyed to be confronted by the numbers that make me feel bad.

Jeff Sward

Easy. Post nutrition information on TikTok!

Ryan Mathews

The answer is, it depends. If you are a diabetic, have severe food allergies, or other kinds of medical conditions, food health labels are critically important. Could there be a more intuitive and useful labeling system? Almost always. That said, I agree with Georganne. If you are eating the most popular items at McDonald’s, health labels are probably not so important.

John Karolefski

Certifications and verifications on food labels aim to educate shoppers and help them make healthier choices. The problem is that most shoppers do not know what they mean. For example, do everyday folks really know the meaning of Non-GMO Project Verified, CF Certified, No BPA, Fair Trade USA, etc.?

Sometimes there are too many health labels on a package. For example, Season sardines has the following on its small box: Certified GF Gluten Free, Wild Caught, Friend of the Sea Certified Sustainable, NON-GMO Project Product Certified, UP Pareve Kosher for Passover and Year Round, and No BPA in Can Lining.

Sometimes less is more.

"Providing health and nutrition information on foods is a good thing, but it's not going to change many minds"
"But in fact, it puts all of the onus on the consumers to “choose” the healthier option and makes them feel judged when they don’t..."
" everyday folks really know the meaning of Non-GMO Project Verified, CF Certified, No BPA, Fair Trade USA, etc.?"

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