Simplified Nutritional Labels Spur Healthier Choices

Issue Date: 
February 15, 2016

When it comes to making healthier food purchases in our nation’s grocery stores, the simpler the nutritional packaging is, the better. In fact, if one only has to look at a single number—a score that represents the nutritional value of what’s inside the packaging—a consumer is more likely to buy healthier products, according to research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh.

That’s the finding of a new study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, “Healthy Choice: The Effect of Simplified Point-of-Sale Nutritional Information on Consumer Food Choice Behavior.” The research was co-authored by Pitt’s J. Jeffrey Inman, the Albert Wesley Frey Professor of Marketing in the Katz School of Business, and Boston College’s Hristina Nikolova, the Coughlin Sesquicentennial Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Carroll School of Management.

The study involved more than 535,000 shoppers, eight different food categories, and a major grocery store chain that uses the NuVal (short for Nutritional Value) simplified scoring system. The researchers say NuVal—or any kind of point-of-sale nutritional scoring system—also helps save time. The NuVal System scores food products on a scale of 1 to 100—the higher the score, the better the nutrition. It is available in more than 1,600 stores in the United States. NuVal LLC, based in Quincy, Mass., licenses its food scoring system to food retailers across the country and has no affiliation with any manufacturer or university.

“Our study indicated that the NuVal nutritional scale had an immediate and powerful impact on shoppers’ decisions,” says Inman, who is also associate dean for research and faculty and a professor of business administration at the Katz School. “They changed their purchasing behavior to pick healthier choices, and they switched to higher-scoring products. In fact, the simplified nutritional information boosted healthy choices by more than 20 percent.”

The NuVal System was developed by a team of nutrition, public health, and medical experts after the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) failed to reduce the nation’s obesity rate. NLEA mandated that nutritional labels list ingredients such as fat content, sodium, calories, and carbohydrates—essentially what is listed on food labels today. While well-intentioned, the labels “are somewhat difficult and time consuming to understand,” according to the study, because shoppers look at the product packaging and have to “combine all the information into an overall evaluation.” The researchers cited a 2012 Nielsen study that found 59 percent of grocery shoppers experience difficulty in understanding nutritional facts on product packaging.

The study was conducted with the grocery store chain that began implementing the NuVal scoring system in its stores in 2008. The research-—which focused on frozen pizza, tomato products, soup, salad dressing, yogurt, spaghetti sauce, granola bars, and ice cream—compared purchases of more than 535,000 frequent shoppers in the six-month pre-rollout and six-month post-rollout periods.

The study found that consumers using NuVal and other point-of-sale nutritional scoring systems tended to gravitate toward products with higher nutritional scores, regardless of the price. In fact, price sensitivity in the grocery chain under study decreased by 19 percent, while overall sales increased.

“Our study revealed that shoppers became less price sensitive and more promotion sensitive following the introduction of the food scoring system,” says Inman. “The new nutrition scores help to justify the price. This means that grocery stores were able to create a win-win by helping their customers make healthier choices, while also increasing sales at their store.”

The study’s authors suggest that, not only should the rest of the nation’s 37,000 supermarkets consider point-of-sale nutritional scoring implementation, but the U.S. government might want to consider a new standardized nutritional scoring system.