- University of Nottingham researchers found consumers are more concerned about sugar content than fat and salt when it comes to making healthy food choices. Their study examined whether the U.K.'s traffic light labeling system — which uses red, yellow and green color coding — encouraged consumers to trade off less-desirable qualities.
- Working with 858 adults in Nottingham, the researchers showed them three options of the same food item with different traffic light label combinations. After repeating this process for prepackaged sandwiches, breakfast cereals and biscuits, participants were asked to pick which one they considered the healthiest product.
- Researchers found participants avoided foods with a high sugar content. Those with excess fat, saturated fat and salt were viewed as less bad. Those with red labels were avoided more often and affected choices more than green labels, researchers added. The study was published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.
Since 2013, the U.K. has had a voluntary color-coded system for identifying how much sugar, fat and salt items contain. The system was adopted after public health advocates said consumers were baffled by which foods were healthier than others. The labels indicate with red, yellow and green color codes how many calories and how much fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt are in prepackaged foods and beverages.
The researchers said given today's emphasis on sugar reduction, they wanted to study how consumers view ingredients' influence in determining whether a product is healthy. They also were trying to figure out how much impact the labeling system has on how people choose items, and whether it remains influential when there isn't significant nutritional knowledge available.
The results showed study participants were particularly swayed by sugar content. Foods with high sugar levels were by far perceived to be the worst for health, while those with excess fat, saturated fat and salt were less off-putting to those surveyed.
Sugar content has long been a major factor in consumers' purchasing decisions and is likely to become more important in the U.S. when the FDA's added sugars labeling requirements kick in next year. Because consumers are reading labels more often and they're increasingly concerned about how much sugar they're getting in foods and beverages, the policy change could influence what they decide to buy as much as it has in the U.K.
An Ipsos poll from 2018 found 70% of U.S. adults are somewhat or very concerned about the level of sugar in their diets, but less than half were somewhat or very likely to seek out or try substitutes such as stevia, Splenda, agave or monk fruit. They were most worried about sodas and carbonated beverages, followed by juices, candy, desserts, canned fruit, condiments and flavored coffee, Ipsos said.
At the same time, many people like the occasional indulgent treat. Manufacturers know this and are trying to balance shifting consumer interests in healthier and less-sweet products with their taste for real sugar. This helps explain why Nestlé and Mondelez are reducing sugar content in some items and why Kind Snacks is revealing the amount of various sweeteners and sugars in competitors' products.
Moving forward, it's hard to imagine the U.S. adopting the U.K.'s traffic light labeling system, although it could help identify healthier products for consumers who find it hard to understand existing nutritional facts panels. The system was rejected by the European Union because some members thought it was too simplistic and might unfairly portray the oil-rich Mediterranean diet.
However, because these findings show the label actually impacts purchasing decisions, it's possible this nutritional debate could be reignited.