Front-of-Pack Nutrition Symbols: Should You Choose Them or Lose Them?

Woman shopping for candy grocery store

Picture this: You are standing in the grocery store, two similar items in hand, debating which is the healthier option: one carries a bold “front-of-pack” (FOP) nutrition symbol on the front of the package that calls out the amounts of certain nutrients like sodium, sugars or saturated fat. The other food does not. Should you be swayed?

In an effort to capture your attention in a crowded aisle and influence your perception of a product, roughly 20% of food products now carry these types of FOP ratings systems and symbols. Yet a recent study in Appetite found that foods that carry FOP nutrition symbols are not any healthier than those without them.

No Symbols? No Problem 

Researchers evaluated over 10,000 packaged foods both with and without FOP labels, comparing nutritional issues that are of high priority for shoppers such as calories, sugar, sodium and saturated fat. They found that FOP symbols were used to market foods that were no more nutritious overall than their lesser-dressed shelf mates.

Companies say FOP labels help consumers quickly find information they need in order to make a decision. Critics contend that many FOP labeling systems, (as they are often designed by food companies according to its own set of criteria), are inconsistent in their nutritional standards and can sometimes have the effect of making unhealthy foods appear more favorable.

With our ever-shortening attention spans and our craving for bite-sized information we can digest quickly, it’s easy to see the appeal of FOP labels. We’re all looking for easy shortcuts that help us shop smarter, faster and with more confidence at the store. But the devil is in the details. Until there are consistent standards across the board for FOP labels, your best bet is to ignore them completely, and to rely on the Nutrition Facts Panel on the back instead. It is still your best tool for getting all the dirty (or not so dirty) details that allow you to make an informed decision about the foods you choose to buy, whether you’re trying to sleuth out ingredients, portion size, added sugars or specific nutrients. And remember, many of the buys that are best for you in the grocery store won’t ever have FOPs, such as nuts from the bulk bin aisle, fish from the fish counter and most fresh fruits and vegetables in the produce section.