Do Food Labels Actually Matter?

There are 31 different types of labels worldwide

The Lempert Report

According to a 2019 BMJ study, there are 31 different types of labels worldwide telling customers how much fat, salt and sugar there is in the food they buy. Those are all in addition to the traffic lights, different colored nutrition tags and healthy choice shelf signs.

Michael Skapinker, a writer I enjoy reading, has a must-read column in Financial Times called “Mexico’s blunt food labels will aid obesity fight,” in which Skapinker details his own measure of food label effectiveness: the Squeal Index. 

Basically, he explains, the greater the food companies’ fury (or squeal) about a new type of labeling, the better it probably is. By his standard, Mexico and Chile are on to a winner. 

The Financial Times reported that Mexican shoppers would soon see large black labels on their food and beverages warning if they contained too much sugar, too much fat or too many calories. Some foods, such as crackers and biscuits, would carry all three labels. 

Mexico is following Chile, where black labels seem to have delivered results, including a 25% fall in sugary drinks sales over the past year. Skapinker says the president of the Mexican Council for the Consumer Goods Industry threatened injunctions. It’s an ideological crusade against the processed food industry, he said. For Skapinker, that’s quite high on the Squeal Index. I like his Squeal Index premise. 

We have spent so much time and money on label schemes that typically have been designed by committees that want to be sure that every voice of the food world—with the exception of farmers, who, after all, probably know the most about the foods we eat—have a seat at the table.

The results are usually confusing and I would say, based on American’s BMI and waistlines, ineffective.

A great example he shares is schemes such as red, amber and green traffic lights. Butter and spreads, for example, are both labeled red for saturated fats, even though spreads contain far less saturated fat than butter. 

In my opinion, the average U.S. shopper can’t relate the information on the nutritional facts label to make healthier choices either. Maybe it is time to use a more effective communication—black scary and squeal-worthy labels sound like a great idea to me.


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