A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Nottingham suggests that consumers are more likely to drop foods high in sugar when making healthy changes to their diet.
In using the traffic light labeling system (TLL) to assess consumers’ healthy decision-making skills, the researchers learned that sugar, more so than fat or salt, represents a big red light and stops consumers in their tracks. The participants were more likely to avoid foods high in sugar, as opposed to foods with higher concentrations of fat or salt.
“When using the TLL, consumers often have to make tradeoffs between undesirable attributes and decide which to use to guide them in making a choice,” said researcher Ola Anabtawi. “We wanted to find out whether it was fat, saturated fat, sugar, or salt they most wanted to avoid and see whether the traffic light labeling was influencing this decision.”
The push away from sugar
To assess consumers’ attitudes about nutritional recommendations, the researchers had nearly 900 participants involved in the study. The participants were shown three food items -- cereal, a breakfast biscuit, and a pre-packed sandwich. Each item had three different combinations of the traffic light labeling system.
The goal of the study was for the participants to identify which product they believed was the healthiest based on the TLL. The researchers learned that sugar was the most off-putting ingredient for the participants. Any label that warned against high levels of sugar was the most likely to be selected as the least healthy.
The researchers explained that TLL is used to help consumers make healthy choices. The packaging of a product shows various nutritional facts in either red, amber, or green, and the more green there is on the package, the better the product is nutritionally.
Moving forward, the researchers hope that consumers consider all nutritional information equally, as moderation and balance are key for any diet.
“The dominance of sugar in decision-making shows the labelling system is having an impact in the current public health climate,” said Anabtawi. “However, it is important to consider the effect of disregarding other nutrients (i.e. fat and salt) for people with different nutritional needs. We suggest raising awareness of all nutrients to help the public achieve a well-balanced diet.”