RALEIGH, NC. — The adoption of nutritional data on front of package (FOP) labels influences the nutritional content of those foods and their competitors, according to a new study from North Carolina State University.

The study analyzed 16 years of data on tens of thousands of products, ranging from energy bars to soups, to determine the impact of FOP labels on individual products and their larger food categories.

“We wanted to know whether food companies were responding to increased public interest in healthier food,” said Rishika Rishika, co-author of the study and an associate professor of marketing in North Carolina State University's Poole College of Management. “In other words, is the market driving change in the nutrition of food products? And the evidence suggest that this is exactly what's happening.”

Facts Up Front labelSpecifically, researchers examined the impact of the Facts Up Front style of FOP nutrition labeling, a voluntary program adopted by dozens of companies in the food industry. Manufacturers participating in the program list the calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium per serving size on their food products, which still carry the mandated nutritional information panels on the back of their packages.

For food categories in which at least one product had adopted FOP labeling, the researchers evaluated differences in the nutritional quality of all products n the category both before and after any products adopted FOP labels. The differences were compared to food categories in which no products adopted labeling. Researchers calculated a product’s nutritional content using the Nutrient Profiling system, which includes a host of nutrients such as sugar, fat, sodium, protein and fiber.

The results showed a clear association between FOP labeling and changes in nutritional content of food products. Premium brands and brands with narrower product lines improved nutritional quality more than non-premium brands in the same category. Products in categories that are broadly unhealthy, like snack foods, showed a more pronounced response, as did foods in more competitive categories.

Across all categories in which at least some products adopted FOP labels, there was a 13% reduction in calories, saturated fat and sugar, and a 4% reduction in sodium.

“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,” Ms. Rishika said. “This would, in turn, cause competitive pressure on other brands in that category to innovate and improve the nutritional quality of their products.”

The findings may suggest that voluntary, highly visible nutritional labeling can be an effective tool for encouraging change on an industry level, Ms. Rishika added.

“For consumers, we found that the presence of a Facts Up Front FOP label on a package generally meant that the product had a better nutritional profile than competing products that didn't have an FOP label,” she said. “However, it remains unclear which aspect of the program is more important. Is the fact that the program is voluntary more important, since it helps consumers identify brands that are choosing to share nutritional information on the front of package? Or is the fact that the FOP labeling is prominent more important, simply because the information is more clearly noticeable? Those are questions for future research.”