Research Nugget

Front-of-Pack Nutrition labels as a tool to guide consumers identify healthier foods

The development of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases, is strongly linked to an unhealthy diet, with ultra-processed foods being a major problem as they are high in ‘nutrients of concern’. Therefore, assisting consumers to identify healthier foods with better nutritional profiles may provide a practical intervention for preventing and curbing NCD progression.

Research funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) looked at how South African food labels could be improved to help consumers to better comprehend the healthiness of packaged foods. The mixed -method study focused on the front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labels to gain insight into labelling challenges experienced by consumers and to guide the selection and testing of the FOP nutrition labels. The selected FOP nutrition labels were applied on a fictitious cereal product, a commonly consumed ultra-processed food type in South Africa to investigate the extent to which various FOP labels can help consumers to judge the overall healthiness of the product.

The study found that, among others:

  • Small and illegible font on food packaging and the use of scientific names for some ingredients hindered consumers ability to use an understand nutrition labels.
  • The fairly open legibility criteria for food labelling in South Africa posed a challenge as it may be open to interpretation.

To improve the labelling challenges, the study suggests that the font size should be increased in proportion to pack size and the colour of the nutritional and ingredient information on the labels should be standardised to black and white. In addition, more attention should be paid to the use of plain language, making it easier for consumers to interpret the label. For example, the use of chemical names such as ‘sodium chloride’ instead of more colloquial terms, i.e. salt or table salt.

The study also found that the use of a health warning and health star ratings on the FOP nutrition label holds promise to help consumers to identify less healthy products. Given that FOP labels are not mandatory in South Africa, the study recommends that the use of FOP labels in South Africa could be a viable policy option to guide consumers to reduce their consumption of ‘less healthy’ foods and encourage the consumption of ‘healthier’ products.

Access the full paper published in the journal nutrients  here.