The grocery store has always been Dr. Joon Ho Lim’s playground. “As a student of marketing, everything from the packaging and branding to store layout is fun to watch,” said Lim, an assistant professor of marketing at Illinois State University. “It also makes you think a lot about food.”
For years, Lim has been part of a team studying companies that use “Facts Up Front” front-of-package (FOP) labeling system that makes it easier for customers to understand what they are consuming and compare nutritional profiles of packaged food products.
“The nutrition labels generally found on the back or side of products look very complicated and are not easy for customers to process or understand and get access,” said Lim. “That means people generally do not know what they are consuming.”
A study, co-authored by Lim recently published in the Journal of Marketing, gathered and analyzed a data set of FOP labels in the United States from across 44 categories over 16 years.
While traditional nutritional labels are mandatory for food products, food manufacturers can voluntarily adopt FOP labels that offer a simplified version of nutrition information. “We found the easy-to-read FOP labels help consumers make healthier choices by offering incentives for producers to make a healthier product,” said Lim.
The data revealed that when one company began to use FOP labels in a product category, it drove others in the same category to change nutritional quality of their products. “That competitive effect due to increased salience of nutritional information on the consumer side caused companies to make products healthier,” said Lim. The study reported that the introduction of FOP labels in some food categories resulted in reductions of a little over 12 percent in calories, saturated fat, and sugar, with a nearly 4 percent reduction in sodium.
Even with FOPs, Lim noted nutrition labeling has a long way to go. “The serving sizes can be so small they are almost meaningless. The packaging could say 150 calories, but for only eight chips. Not only are customers rarely going to take the time to calculate serving sizes, but who eats eight chips?” he said with a laugh.
Lim hopes the study contributes to creating an upgraded nutritional labeling system that customers can easily understand. “For more and more companies, social responsibility is becoming a priority. That should include the overall health and welfare of customers,” he said.