Nutritional labels “in the wild”: how they affect your snack choice

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Barely any people stick to a three-meals-a-day plan. Snacking is part of our culture and can even contribute to a healthy diet when choosing the right snacks. But your appetite doesn’t always agree about what’s the “right” snack. Your hands automatically reach for those candy bars, instead of a handful of nuts. Therefore, we investigated whether two different nutritional labels – calorie labels and the Nutri-Score – can nudge you in the right direction.

Imagine it’s two o’clock. Your workday has been intensive, and you still have some hours to go. Let’s have an afternoon snack. You know that a trail mix is exactly what you need, packed with protein and some essential fats to keep you going all afternoon. The last thing you need is a sugar rush. And yet, those cookies and candy bars look so tempting…

What if something would be there to help you make the best decision? You can’t expect your colleagues to whisper, “Take the trail mix!” in your ear, but what about food labels? Could they help you choose the healthier option?

“Most of what we currently know stems from laboratory or online research, and while it makes sense to study behavior in highly controlled environments, it doesn’t always reflect real life.” – Elke Godden

Labeling and the observation effect

The European Commission seems to think labels can do just that, as they are currently debating on the EU’s mandatory label. The Nutri-Score is one of the leading contenders in this race. Most of what we currently know stems from laboratory or online research, and while it makes sense to study behavior in highly controlled environments, it doesn’t always reflect real life. Let’s return to our two o’clock snack: If I, as a health researcher, were to stand next to you (and you knew I was a health researcher), would you consider changing your initial choice? And would my presence have even more influence if you knew that I was the one who put nutritional labels on those goodies?

Our study in the wild

To avoid this “observation effect”, our research team from the University of Antwerp ventured out into a real-life setting to test some labels! In a conference with about 600 invitees, we positioned six snack stands during the coffee breaks. We offered chocolate candy bars, cookies, and a healthy trail mix option for the attendees to choose from. Two of the six stands were given calorie labels, the snacks in two other stands received labels with Nutri-Scores, and two were left without any labels. We aimed to investigate whether the likelihood of making a healthy choice (choosing nuts over cookies or candy bars) would be different between the different stands. The attendees did not know we were there to measure their choices. They could freely choose whatever they liked, undisturbed by nosy researchers!

Picture of the experiment, showing bowls of snacks with Nutri-Score labels

We weighed the bowls before and at the end of each coffee break to measure how many snacks were taken at the different stands. In terms of popularity, the candy bars and cookies clearly won the race. Compared to the stands without a label, the calorie labels did not change anything. That makes sense, as the nuts also contain many calories and the labels neglect that these are “healthy” calories, derived from essential fats and protein. The Nutri-Score, however, does take this into account and at these stands people chose nuts over cookies more often than at the others. But the label’s power wasn’t limitless: Nutri-Scores couldn’t break the attraction of the chocolate candy bars either, especially in the afternoon, after a long day of lectures.

So what about your afternoon snack?

“Nutri-Scores take more into account than calorie labels and might nudge you away from some unhealthy choices.” – Elke Godden

As researchers, we are working hard to find ways to simplify healthy choices for you. Based on what we know, we can advise you to consider Nutri-Scores rather than calorie labels when selecting your snack options. Calorie labels focus too much on… well, calories, whereas the healthiness of a product is determined by a lot more than that! Nutri-Scores take this into account and might nudge you away from some unhealthy choices. Additionally, be mindful that your choices in the afternoon may be harder (read: those chocolates look more delicious)!

It is clear that the Nutri-Score alone doesn’t solve all of our problems, especially “in the wild”. But we are determined to find complementary nudges to help you live healthier, happier, and more energized throughout the day! So… which snack will you choose today?

All details of the study can be found here:

What else is involved in making our snack or other food choices? Check out this SciMingo article on the chaos of choice: The chaos of choice how do people pick their food products