Can “Low-Fat” Nutrition Labels Lead to Obesity?

Brian Wansink and Pierre Chandon
Journal of Marketing Research (JMR)
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Key Takeaways

Executive Summary

The United States is a country of low-fat foods and high-fat people. Food companies are on trial for contributing to the growing problem of obesity in the United States and abroad. They have been threatened with taxes, fines, restrictions, legislation, and the possibility of being “the tobacco industry of the new millennium” (Nestle 2002). Labeling is one area of critical concern among regulators, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although much is known about how nutrition labels influence health beliefs and purchase intentions, the pressing issue for the FDA is how relative nutrition claims (e.g., low fat) influence single-occasion intake. A particularly acute concern is that low-fat labels may lead to the overconsumption of nutrient-poor and calorie-rich snack foods by the 65% of U.S. consumers who are already overweight.

This need for a policy-sensitive solution was underscored in a series of FDA meetings that raised three related questions for companies such as Kraft Foods and M&M/Mars (now Masterfoods): (1) How do relative nutrition claims (e.g., low fat) influence how much people consume on a single eating occasion? (2) Do relative nutrition claims influence overweight consumers differently from normal-weight consumers? and (3) Can serving-size information eliminate any potential bias? To help managers and policy makers better address these questions, the authors propose a framework that suggests that low-fat nutrition claims increase consumption because they increase perceptions of the appropriate serving size and reduce anticipated consumption guilt. This helps explain why the influence of relative nutrition claims differ according to the factors associated with guilt, such as whether a person has a normal weight or whether the food is hedonic.

The authors test the predictions of the framework in one lab study and two field experiments in natural environments. The key results are as follows:

  • Labeling snacks as low fat increases food intake during a single consumption occasion by up to 50%. This is robust across both hedonic and utilitarian snacks, young and old consumers, self-reported nutrition experts and novices, in a public or private consumption setting, and regardless of whether people serve themselves.
  • For normal-weight people, low-fat labeling increases consumption most with foods that are believed to be relatively healthy.
  • For overweight people, low-fat labeling increases their consumption of all foods.
  • Objective serving-size information prevents normal-weight people from overeating foods labeled as low fat. It does not influence overweight people.

Following these studies, the authors discuss the implications of their findings for public policy officials, responsible food manufacturers, researchers, and consumers who are interested in better controlling how much they eat. In particular, the authors show that though no food company would want to discourage consumers from purchasing their products, it may be in their interest to use relative nutrition claims to help consumers better control how much they consume on a single eating occasion. The authors also discuss how their findings might apply to relative nutrition claims, including “reduced-calorie” and “low-carb”; to manufacturer-developed labels, such as “sensible snacking” (Nabisco/Kraft) or “smart spot” (Pepsico); or to process-related labels, such as “organic” or “natural.

Brian Wansink is the John S. Dyson Chair of Marketing and of Nutritional Science in the Applied Economics and Management Department at Cornell University. Brian Wansink’s teaching and research interests are on how advertisements, packaging, and personality traits influence the usage frequency and usage volume of healthful foods. Along with more than 75 journal articles, he has written the books Marketing Nutrition, Consumer Panels, Asking Questions, and Mindless Eating. In addition to being a professor, he is the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, which focuses on the psychology behind what people eat and how often they eat it. A primary focus of the lab is in helping companies develop “win–win” ways in which they can help people eat more nutritiously and to control how much they eat. The lab’s work has won national and international awards for its relevance to consumers. His research has been widely featured on 20/20, BBC News, The Learning Channel, all news networks, and has appeared multiple times on the front pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Pierre Chandon is Assistant Professor of Marketing at INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France, which he joined in 1999. Pierre Chandon holds a PhD in Marketing from HEC Paris and an MBA from ESSEC. Professor Chandon’s research is on how estimation and perceptual biases influence food consumption decisions, attention and consideration decisions at the point of purchase, and the validity of marketing surveys. He has published articles in leading academic journals, including Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Marketing, and Journal of Consumer Research. He is a member of the editorial boards of Journal of Marketing and of Recherche et Applications en Marketing,the journal of the French Marketing Association. His Journal of Marketing article “Do Intentions Really Predict Behavior? Self-Generated Validity Effects in Survey Research” (coauthored with Vicki Morwitz and Werner Reinartz) won an honorable mention in the 2005 Marketing Science Institute /H. Paul Root Award. His multimedia case “Unilever in Brazil, Marketing Strategies for Low-Income Consumers” won the 2004 EFMD Best Marketing Case Award. His work has been the subject of media coverage in Europe and the United States by ABC 20/20, the International Herald Tribune, France Inter, L'Expansion, Les Echos, Le Figaro, and Marketing News, among others.

J Marketing Research, Volume 43, Number 4, November 2006
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Author Bio:

Brian Wansink and Pierre Chandon
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