Food for thought

How behavioural science can inform food labelling strategy

Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash

With new regulations being launched worldwide concerning food labelling, it’s useful to think about the way behaviour science can support the design and implementation of these important notices. 

There is a lot of interest in considering the way behavioural science can be used to optimise the food labels, getting attention and conveying information in a way that is as clear and understandable as possible.  There is no shortage of literature that can offer guidance on this of course.  My reservation though is that this is very much a ‘micro’ set of decisions which fails to see the bigger picture – the focus here is too narrow.  It is a necessary but not sufficient step.  Here is why.

First, we need to step back and think about what behaviour we are trying to achieve and the role of food labels within that.  Surely what we are doing with a food label is less about trying to make people stop eating certain foods but to make them think more carefully about what or how much they are eating.  There is not necessarily anything wrong with eating something sugary (medical issues aside), the issue is how much of it can be consumed, especially alongside other things that are in that person’s diet.  Its quite a nuanced set of things that therefore needs to be considered. 

This means that we don’t just need to give information - we have long known that knowledge is not enough. We also want the food label to encourage thinking and consideration. It is not just about food labels imparting information that is easy to understand – we also need some ‘disfluency’ to engage us.

Second, just how much can we rely on the food label by itself to be doing all the work?  We have to be careful not to be too ambitious of what a food label can achieve.  This is not to say that labels do not have an impact.  For example, food products positioned as healthy do not always fare well in terms of sugar content and in these cases the juxtaposition of a food label can have a significant impact on sales. 

But many food products sit in a middle ground where there are fewer obvious cues to alert people.  It may, for example, be more about managing portions for a wide range of food such as rice, paste or ready meals for example. 

But with these sorts of foods, we need to recognise that there are huge influences that shape what, and how much, we consume.  There is a long history of what is culturally acceptable, people will also have plate sizes to reflect portion sizes and there will be social norms governing it. 

Just how much impact can a food label have in this environment?  While it is necessary to give people information and be transparent about what they are eating, is a food label sufficient?  I would argue that too much is often expected of a food label for it to be an effective ‘intervention’ to influence our behaviour. 

We can think of ways in which the food label is just one of a range of touchpoints to help people to meaningfully engage.  Maybe providing online resources, linked through to apps that people can use in the everyday.  Perhaps finding ways to trigger thinking using POS materials, influencers,  promotions, TV commercials and so on.  These different strategies will all help to build a knowledge base and set of skills.

The implication of this for food labels is potentially radical.  It then becomes something which is more a cue for thinking, activating an awareness and understanding that people have already got from other sources.  It does not have to do all the work on its own.  And as it is working alongside other mechanisms, the role changes from primary information giver to cue to trigger thinking and consideration.

In summary, this is a classic behaviour change challenge:

  • Define the behaviour you are trying to facilitate (healthier eating)

  • Diagnose the barriers to this (not just knowledge but giving the task some thought and consideration),

  • Design the interventions to address the Diagnosis (give people information but also encourage them to slow down and reflect on it)

  • Deliver the intervention principles in a way that makes best use of the infrastructure you have available (considering that there are not just food labels but a range of other mechanisms available)

By rethinking the food label in this way, we can be imaginative and develop strategies to really make it work effectively.


Picture of the week: One of a series of photos being sold to raise money to support local groups working to get out the vote in the US election.

News round up

The failure of COVOID solutions have illustrated so many times why we need to understand behaviour change.  In France, it was found that even government ministers had not downloaded their own tracking app.  In the UK, Operation Moonshot relied on people agreeing to participate in random saliva tests seems to have stumbled.  Behaviour change approaches allow us to examine what the hurdles are and ways to most effectively engage people to overcome them.  Without this, these sorts of initiatives will likely continue to struggle.

Related to this, Cory Doctrow is always someone worth listening to.  In a recent interview he was saying “Technologists have failed to listen to non-technologists. In technological circles, there’s a quantitative fallacy that if you can’t do maths on it, you can just ignore it.”  This seems to apply to some of our current challenges.

Reads and views

As shown above, a small group of artists have launched a print sale which is raising money to support local groups working on the ground to get out the vote – surely a worthy cause at this time.

And the human relationship with robots is interesting from the perspective of how we anthropomorphise machines – this essay is a great read.

As so much of life is mediate by technology, all sorts of interesting issues are raised but the implications, we can see so readily see from this week’s news, are very pragmatic.