Nutri-Score or number of calories?  Research “in the wild” shows the impact of food labels

Nutri-Score or number of calories? Research “in the wild” shows the impact of food labels

Well-dressed ladies and gentlemen moved across the savannah without a doubt. They did not see three pairs of eyes watching them from behind the native plants.

'Savannah' was certainly the lobby of Queen Elizabeth Hall, and 'Native Plants' may have been the conference posters. But otherwise it is a fairly accurate picture of our recent research conducted by the University of Antwerp1.

Based on our interest in nutrition labels (eg: Nutri-Score, calorie labels, etc.) we wanted to know what impact these labels would have if people did not realize they were participating in a study. It is known that you will behave differently if you know that researchers are watching you. We call this the “observer paradox.” For example, let's say I ask you to choose a snack to go with your coffee. I offer you three snacks: a mini Twix, gingerbread, or a handful of student oatmeal. You know I'm all about healthy food choices and that I care deeply about the snack you choose. Would you choose exactly the same way you would otherwise?

Many people will answer this with a resounding “no.” Or maybe they answer “yes,” but when the time is right, they adjust and choose the healthier option: nuts. To avoid this, we worked with the organizers of the annual conference.

During coffee breaks, guests can have a snack with their drink. It was exactly the same snacks I just gave you: a small chocolate candy bar, a cookie or some student oatmeal. They have put Nutri-Scores with snacks at two locations. At two other sites, they labeled bowls with calories. The last two sites have no labels. We weighed all the scales before and after each break. And wild animals… who are the guests of the conference? They didn't know anything.

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What does it look like? If the Nutri-Score is on it, we replace cookies more often with healthy nuts. Calorie labels had no effect. Another surprising discovery: later in the day, we choose chocolate more often. We suspect this has something to do with mental fatigue. In the morning, the guests were of course still as fresh as a daisy, but after a few hours of intellectual lectures, they had probably turned into a bit of a guilty pleasure more often than not. Perhaps we will find conclusive evidence of this in one of our future studies!

First: If you want to eat healthy, be aware of your options. It's okay to let yourself go sometimes, but you have to realize that the people around you and the fatigue you feel during the day all determine what you will choose. Want to give yourself a push in the right direction? Why are there no Nutri-Scores on the buffet? Who knows, this might work for you and your guests too.

1. Godden, E., Alida, C. & Dens, N. The effect of food labeling on adults' snack choices: a controlled field experiment in a non-commercial professional setting. appetite 193107167 (2024).

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