A Nutri-Score label displayed on the front of a food package. Credit: Getty Images

UMass Amherst Study Finds Front-of-Package Nutrition Labeling Results in Healthier Products

French Nutri-Score system provides insights as U.S. explores new labeling

As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration explores front-of-package nutrition labeling to help American consumers make healthier eating choices, a new University of Massachusetts Amherst study finds that a food labeling system introduced by the French government in 2017 resulted in healthier products. The study of Nutri-Score, a voluntary labeling system that assigns a simple letter grade based on nutrition, is believed to be the first to examine how food manufacturers responded to the change.

Using detailed product and nutrition data from 2014 to 2021, Christoph Bauner, assistant professor of resource economics at UMass Amherst, and doctoral candidate Rajib Rahman found packaged food became significantly healthier in France after Nutri-Score was adopted, compared with similar products in Italy and the United Kingdom, which do not have the system. Now used in 10 European countries, Nutri-Score grades products on a scale of A (healthiest) to E (unhealthiest). The research also shows that some manufacturers formulated their products to narrowly achieve a better letter grade, a circumstance known as “bunching.”

Christoph Bauner

Our findings about bunching—that some manufacturers are formulating products’ nutrition just enough to look better—illustrates that labeling system design is very important.

Christoph Bauner, assistant professor of resource economics at UMass Amherst

“We find front-of-package labeling can be effective at giving consumers healthier choices,” says Bauner, the study’s lead author. “In addition, our findings about bunching—that some manufacturers are formulating products’ nutrition just enough to look better—illustrates that labeling system design is very important.”

The study analyzed nearly 6,000 products in three distinct categories: breakfast cereals, popcorn and potato snacks. These categories were selected due to their and abundance and long history in France. Typically, these foods are also highly processed, giving manufacturers room to improve nutrition.

Based on a corresponding numerical value comparing healthy (e.g., protein, fiber) and unhealthy (e.g., sugar, sodium) nutrients as well and fruit and vegetable content, Nutri-Score grades are meant to be comparable within, but not across, food groups. To date, more than 500 food producers, accounting for more than half of products sold in France, have chosen to participate in the grading system. Bauner notes that firms with an overwhelmingly unhealthy selection of products are more likely to forgo the labels.

While multiple studies have examined consumer response to front-of-package labeling, the overall effectiveness of such systems remains uncertain. Exploring the issue from the supply side contributes a new and significant element to the debate.

Still, the evidence presented so far suggests that manufacturers’ formulation of new products based on front-of-package labeling may play an important role in promoting healthier eating, given that poor diet is a major contributor to many serious health conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Though no front-of-package labeling requirement exists at the federal level in the U.S., some manufacturers do provide selected nutritional information in this space. In addition, legislation has been proposed that would direct the FDA to develop a labeling system for foods and beverages.

“Generally speaking, any commonsense labeling system is likely to move things in the right direction, but its effectiveness could vary quite a bit based on the specifics,” Bauner adds. “We know that producers will be strategic in how they react, and that’s something you want to have working for you, and not against you.”

The study, “The effect of front-of-package nutrition labelling on product composition,” appears online in the European Review of Agricultural Economics.

A person holding gummy fruit snacks. Credit: Getty Images

Forget gummies – a recent UMass Amherst study found that dried fruit has the highest nutritional value.