OXFORD, Miss. – A University of Mississippi’s marketing professor’s joint study of the effects of front-of-package nutrition labels shows they serve different purposes depending upon the shopping situation, greatly affecting consumers’ abilities to make proper evaluations and healthful choices.
Christopher L. Newman, assistant professor of marketing, is a co-author of “Effects of Objective and Evaluative Front-of-Package Cues on Food Evaluation and Choice: The Moderating Influence of Comparative and Noncomparative Processing Contexts.” The results were published recently in the Journal of Consumer Research.
His co-authors are Elizabeth Howlett, professor of marketing, and Scot Burton, distinguished professor and Tyson Chair in Food and Consumer Products Retailing, both at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.
The research was partially supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its Healthy Eating Research Program and by the SEC Faculty Travel Grant Program.
“Our research suggests that one potential reason that the Nutrition Facts Panel has not been effective in preventing the rise of obesity may lie in its failure to directly address the fact that consumers’ evaluative tasks and environments can, and often, vary greatly,” Newman said.
For example, consumers are frequently faced with the rather complex task of assessing the healthfulness of many different products at once, such as when they are considering different food items in a category at the grocery store shelf. This type of “comparative” information processing requires considerable effort and time from consumers because they must first assess all the different available options and then make comparisons between the alternatives.
Other times, consumers may only need to evaluate the healthfulness of a single product by itself in a noncomparative manner, such as when they are examining a particular food item at home. This type of processing is much simpler. Though these tasks are clearly different, the NFP provides consumers with the same type of standardized nutrition information for both types of tasks.
“The purpose of our research was to determine if different types of front-of-package nutrition labels – either an objective or evaluative FOP label – could help consumers by providing them with the nutrition information that’s best suited for the specific task they were faced with,” Newman said.
“Objective FOP labels provide information that is quantitative and objective. In contrast, evaluative FOP labels provide interpretive information about a product’s overall healthfulness and/or specific nutrients.”
Overall, the researchers’ results indicate that the type of processing environment faced by consumers influences the extent to which specific food package cues can affect their food-related evaluations and decisions.
Information that is more detailed and objective may benefit consumers more than when they assess the healthfulness of a single product. When consumers make relative comparisons between many different brands in a product category, information that is more evaluative in nature is likely to be more beneficial in assessing product healthfulness and making healthy choices.
“We believe that the relationship between the type of front-of-package label and the type of evaluative task that a consumer is faced with should be directly considered by public policy makers and the health community in general, particularly given all of the different FOP labeling systems that are currently in the marketplace,” Newman said.
“Our research suggests that there is not a single ‘one-size-fits-all’ front-of-package nutrition label that is suitable for all of the different types of food evaluations and choices that consumers must make,” Howlett said.
Burton agrees with his colleagues.
“If the primary goal of nutrition labeling is to help consumers make healthier choices, then the ability to identify the most healthful alternatives from a broad set of options is crucial,” he said. “Our research suggests that, in general, when there is a match between the choice processing context and the type of format used to present front-of-package nutrition information, consumers tend to make more healthful food choices.
“This is particularly important in comparative contexts in which evaluative information may improve choice from a set of brands.”
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