Do grocery store and fast food health labels lead to better options?

Food labels are more descriptive than ever. From gluten-free to low-fat, low-sugar, vegan and everything in between, labels allow us to learn more about the foods we buy. While we may have more information, this does not necessarily mean that we use this information when choosing our food.

Researchers emphasize that food choices are not just about health, they are made for a range of reasons that have to do with cost, habit, and convenience. While in some cases, we read the labels and care about them, that’s not the whole picture, says Eli Lipman, assistant professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Georgia.

Its results are published in Marketing Research JournalIt turns out that consumers care little about health when making their food choices. They’re also interested in buying the brands they’ve bought before and it’s no surprise that price is another huge driver.

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As part of the study, researchers used third-party auditor Guiding Stars to assess whether foods were healthy in terms of calories, protein content, saturated fat, sugar, etc.

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The researchers collected information about food choices from consumers using their store loyalty cards. They used informational interviews to see if people understand food labels, read them and use the information the labels provide.

“Labels play a role to some extent in helping consumers better understand healthy food, but more often than not we find very small effects on consumption choices,” says Lipman.

Altogether, the researchers found that 80 percent of participants said they understood the purpose of healthy food labels, but only about 15 to 25 percent said they used the labels to make decisions. Lippmann suggests that those who do not care about health may not care as much and that those who do care about health already know what is in their food. Rankings affect who’s in the middle – those who want to learn but haven’t gotten there yet.

“It’s still, after all, only one factor in the decisions people make,” Lipman says.

What about fast food stickers?

In May 2018, the United States required fast food restaurants to include calories in their menus as part of the Affordable Health Care Act. But recent research has shown that calorie labels hardly affect consumer purchases at all, says Beth Weitzman, a professor of health and public policy at New York University.

“We’re not seeing big changes in decision-making by people at fast food places,” Weitzman says.

It’s not entirely clear what is the biggest driver in fast food settings and why calorie-dense foods don’t have an impact on consumers. But Whitsman believes there are several factors at play. She says consumers don’t go to fast food restaurants because they think they’re healthy or because they think they taste amazing. People eat junk food because it gets the job done. She says they have little time for lunch, are quickly taken in the morning and in the evening, and they pick up the kids from school and sports, she says.

“The precious nature of time plays a major role. These places are easy to get to because they are so ubiquitous and provide fast food,” Weitzman says.

Furthermore, for those who buy the same foods every time they go to a fast food restaurant, research has shown that they are more likely to not look at labels. Many consumers may not realize that their favorite fried chicken sandwich has more than a thousand calories. And if they don’t know their daily ration is 2,000 calories, they may not realize that the sandwich will take up half of their ration.

It is still not known whether the new calorie requirements for sit-down restaurant menus will have a greater impact. If people had time to sit down and eat, would they be more likely to care if their meal was healthy?

“We still wonder if these labels could make a bigger difference when people aren’t in a hurry,” Weitzman says.

A combination of different factors, from health to convenience to habit, taste and price are what move the mind of the consumer. And while researchers are finding that health is the only driver, especially at the grocery store, it is far from the only one. Helping consumers make healthy decisions is a complex task, especially when time and money are so limited.