Graphic health warnings like those required on tobacco products are the most effective way of preventing people from choosing unhealthy processed foods, according to a new study.
The research shows that ‘lighter touch’ food labelling like health star ratings or nutrition information are likely to have a limited impact on people’s food choices.
But telling them a product is good for them increases the chances they will make a positive choice.
The research – co-authored by academics at Bond, Deakin University, University Technology Sydney (UTS) and ESADE Business School in Spain – analysed 23 different meta-analyses of nutrition labelling efficacy research between 2016 and 2021. These drew from the results of hundreds of studies involving more than a million people worldwide.
The research paper, published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, found that stop sign warning labels – used on foods high in sugar or fat in some countries including Chile, Peru and Israel – had the largest impact on consumption.
Dr Belinda Barton from the Bond Business School said the study confirmed that a promotion approach worked better than prevention when it came to making healthy food choices.
“Our analysis shows that people are likely to ignore basic food labels telling them a product is bad for them,” she said.
“For those warnings to be effective they need to be large, graphic labels that stand out on the front of the packaging – similar to those used on tobacco products.
“This is consistent with previous research on public health campaigns that shows warning labels need to clearly state the negative effects of consuming foods that are high in fat, sugar and sodium to be most effective.”
Dr Barton said labels encouraging people to eat more of healthier foods were generally more likely to influence consumer choices.
“This is consistent with previous research that shows promoting healthy eating is much more impactful than negative sentiments about food,” she said.
Dr Barton and her co-authors want to see Australia mandate effective food labelling in a bid to improve health literacy among consumers.
“It’s about helping people make better decisions when it comes to their food choices as part of the strategy to tackle public health issues like obesity and diabetes that can have serious impacts on people’s health and the economy,” she said.