It isn’t just what food makers say, it’s also how, and where, they say it. A new study has found that when manufacturers adopted a “Facts Up Front” style label, the food’s healthiness improved.

With a “Facts Up Front” label, the food manufacturer advertises the number of calories and the amounts of saturated fat, sugar, and salt per serving. A team of researchers from North Carolina State University in Raleigh decided to test if these labels meant that the food had been made healthier. The researchers established a database on packaged food products spanning 44 food categories over 16 years.

Although most food packaging must show a nutritional label detailing calories, micronutrients and ingredients, some manufacturers have put some of that information on the front of the package. The paper's researchers set out to see if adding a second voluntary label had, and could, lead to real changes. “In other words, is the market driving change in the nutrition of food products? And the evidence suggests that this is exactly what’s happening,” said Rishika Rishika, PhD, in a statement on the research.

The researchers looked at categories in which one or more products started to use the new labels. They then compared nutritional information before and after the extra information was added. For comparison, the researchers used categories that lacked the additional labeling.

The “Facts Up Front” label made a difference. According to the researchers, when the contents were listed on the front, calories, fat, sugar, and salt amounts went down. Calories, saturated fat, and sugar all went down by nearly 13%. Salt went down a little under 4%.

These changes weren’t just in foods with the new labels, they were seen in all foods in the category, regardless of label.

The researchers hypothesized there might be a competitive advantage for brands that used the labels. “We had hypothesized that when nutritional information is clearly marked on the front of the package, that consumers would be more likely to consider it when deciding what to buy,” Dr. Rishika explained, adding that this competitive pressure could make competitors step up their nutritional game to compete with the out-in-front competition.

The researchers saw improvement across five categories. Brands with more expensive products improved more than the category's cheaper products. Brands that produced fewer products also improved their nutritional value. Likewise, foods in competitive categories, with lots of products, showed improved nutritional value, as did food categories considered to be unhealthy. Even those products that already had front of the package labeling displayed lists with improved nutritional data.

Of course, having a label on the front does not mean that one product is healthier than the one next to it. The only way to know that would be to turn the products around and look at the full nutritional facts. Also, nutritional needs change from person to person. For some, low sodium is essential, for others, low sugar.

In 2020 the FDA rolled out a new nutritional label. It looks fairly similar to the old one, but there are a few key changes. You'll see these new labels come with the new year. They will show the following:

  • Calorie and fat data will be in more prominent, darker print, making them easier to see.
  • Added sugar will be more obvious.
  • Serving sizes will reflect the amount of food people typically eat in a serving.
  • The label will show the nutritional contents for both the whole package and a single serving, if all of the package's contents can be consumed at one time.

The research raised more questions. Did the nutritional contents improve because of their location, or because this front of the label program allowed consumers, appreciating that this program is voluntary, to compare labels? Said Dr. Rishika: "Those are questions for futre research."

Sabrina Emms is a science journalist who has worked as a researcher, looking at the way bones are formed.