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Arnold School of Public Health

Researchers study effectiveness of new nutrition labeling practices

February 3, 2022 | Erin Bluvas,

Jim Thrasher, professor of health promotion, education, and behavior (HPEB), and Rachel Davis, associate professor of HPEB, have won a four-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Together with HPEB professor Edward Frongillo and James Hardin, professor of biostatistics, these internationally renowned experts will use the R01 award to bring together their prior research on the effects of cigarette package labeling policies and on nutrition-related perceptions and behavior among disadvantaged groups, particularly Mexican Americans.

“The U.S. and Mexico have the highest prevalence of obesity in the world, with the Latinx population comprising the largest ethnic minority group in the U.S. yet experiencing disproportionately high rates of poor diet quality, obesity and diet-related health outcomes,” Davis says. “Food labeling is a low-cost, wide-reaching intervention for communicating nutrition information to consumers so they can make more informed, healthier food choices.”

Historically, nutrition labels used in the U.S. have been criticized for their complexity and non-prominent locations on the back of packaging. Mexico’s front-of-package labels offer consumers more visible and simple information about the healthiness of food, enabling consumers to easily compare options when they are shopping. This approach to warning labels borrows from lessons learned around tobacco warning labels, which have been proven by Thrasher and others to be effective at promoting smoking cessation behaviors.

Previous research has shown that food labels are among the most frequently used nutrition information sources. Further, these labels have been associated with improved diet quality (e.g., fiber, iron, fruits, vegetables, whole grains), lower intake of fat and calories, and higher trust among consumers than information from mass media, advertising or other unregulated nutrition claims.

Despite this progress, many consumers struggle to interpret and apply the information in nutrition labels. This is particularly true for lower socioeconomic status groups, further supporting the need for studies that examine the impact of policies related to nutrition labels to address the health disparities experienced by these populations.

This study will analyze surveys of adults in the United States and Mexico, where new food labeling policies were implemented between 2020 and 2021. The U.S. changed the Nutrition Facts Label on the back of pre-packaged foods to increase the visibility of serving sizes/calorie amounts and introduce information about added sugar. Mexico added mandatory warning labels to the front of food packages in the form of “stop signs” for foods high in calories, sodium, sugar and saturated/trans fats as well as added caffeine and artificial sweeteners.

The research team will leverage data from the International Food Policy Study (IFPS), which has been collecting annual surveys on dietary patterns and food policy-related behaviors among 4,000 U.S. and 4,000 Mexican adults (as well as participants in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom) since 2018.

“Mexicans and U.S. Latinxs with lower educational attainment are key populations with disproportionately high obesity rates and for whom the front-of-package warnings may be most effective,” Thrasher says. “Unfortunately, these groups have been under-represented in prior IFPS surveys. This study will continue annual surveys through 2024 of Mexican consumers, including an oversample of those with lower education, as well as oversamples of U.S. Mexican Americans – a group that comprises two-thirds of U.S. Latinxs.”


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