This website uses third party cookies to improve your experience. If you continue browsing or close this notice, you will accept their use.

Luiss Guido Carli

Logo Luiss

Luiss Open: Labels, habits and behaviors of consumers in the food sector

The reflections of Professors Simona Romani and Marco Francesco Mazzù on the promotion of low calorie products


For at least a decade, the number of initiatives promoted by nutritionists, food scientists and the media has literally exploded, aimed at encouraging low-calorie diets based on products that are low in fat, sugar and sodium. These initiatives create direct and indirect associations with health and well-being, and by contrast, tend to promulgate ever stronger feelings of guilt towards everything that falls within the sphere of pleasure linked to food consumption.

Thus, the idea that health = consumption of food that is low in calories, fat, sugar and sodium is becoming the primary message of organizations that aim to guide consumers towards predefined and assertively healthy food models. One of the methods used to spread this message is the pervasive diffusion of Front-of-Pack (FoP) nutritional labels that provide consumers with simple information that is easy to see and therefore able to influence, sometimes almost implicitly, consumers' choices towards the options considered the best, according to the schemes defined by different actors, for their diet - and therefore – their health. In fact, models are inspired by the so-called "libertarian paternalism" or the theory of nudging.

Labelling systems

Labelling systems fall primarily into two categories: interpretative and informative. The former category includes labels that, through quantitative information, propose a qualitative evaluation expressed in synthetic terms through images or symbols that are easy to interpret, for example, through colors. Examples of this category include the French Nutri-Score, the British Multiple Traffic Light and the Australian Health Star Rating System. Radically different however, are the latter, the informative labels, such as the Guideline Daily Amount, that places information on calories and nutrients on the front of a package, without providing any pre-defined or assertively objective interpretive evaluation.

The inspiration behind interpretive labels is to guide consumers towards foods with a low content of specific ingredients such as fats, sugars and sodium, independent of how often the consumer eats that food, their lifestyle or the provenance of the components that would substitute those ingredients. The parallel system attempts to prevent, through direction, and not through paternalistic methods, consumption of foods that contain these specific nutrients, creating a direct connection between the drastic reduction of the consumption of these products, the perception of following a healthy diet and the reduction of problems related to being overweight or obese.

Currently, there are still no clear, unambiguous and undebatable evidence of the positive effects of the labelling systems on consumer behavior or health. What can be confirmed, at least for now, is that interpretative labels are more efficient in conveying information as they are easier to understand and more intuitive, especially when it comes to comparing two or more products of the same category.

What has seemed to emerge is that the application of Front-of-Pack (FoP) interpretive nutritional labels tends to favor an absolute contrast between virtue and vice, where the first represents choices that are a positive contribution to health, and the second represents hedonistic, pleasant and irresistible products.

Continue reading on Luiss Open