UGA researchers: Nutritional labeling for sodium doesn’t work

Nutritional labels are included to inform consumers about nutritional values of the foods they are eating, but the listing of sodium does not work in getting people to consume less salt in their diet, a University of Georgia researcher says. (Staff Photo: Jim Hendricks)

ATHENS – Food such as potato chips, frozen pizza and fast-food hamburgers are in high demand among Americans, but they’re also foods that are high in sodium.

Health officials say that nine out of 10 Americans consume too much salt in their diets, which can lead to heart disease and high blood pressure.

And while the amount of sodium included in a product is on nutrition labels, researchers with the University of Georgia say that labeling does not result in lower sodium consumption.

“Currently we don’t know which interventions are most effective to reduce sodium intake in the U.S. population, and the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act is the only policy in the U.S. focusing on informing consumers about sodium content on most packaged foods,” Donglan “Stacy” Zhang, assistant professor of health policy and management at UGA’s College of Public Health and lead author of the study, said.

Nutrition labels include consumer information on calories, fats and major nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. The idea is that an informed consumer is more likely to make healthier choices.

In a paper published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Zhang and her co-authors examined the link between regularly reading nutrition labels and the consumption of high-sodium foods. Using two consumer behavior datasets from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, they compared how frequently participants used nutrition labels and their daily sodium intake.

There was a small effect, the research showed.

Frequent nutrition label users consumed 92 milligrams less sodium per day than infrequent nutrition label users, but label readers were eating around 3,300 milligrams of sodium a day. That’s nearly 43.5 percent more than the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended daily upper limit of 2,300 milligrams.

“That’s a very small reduction,” Zhang said. “Without health promotion, without any other additional education intervention, nutrition labeling has little impact on sodium consumption.”

Zhang said a better label design is needed because current labels can be challenging for consumers with limited education and those who do not speak English. Visual or color-coded designs, like the traffic light model used on food packaging in the U.K., can overcome low literacy, researchers said.

“We need more research in this area, how to better design the label and how to best get this information to consumers to guide their decision-making,” she said.

Zhang also found that the effect varied widely across age, gender and socio-economic groups. Low-income consumers were less likely to use nutrition labels.

“We suspect that low-income people are more concerned about other variables, such as food prices or convenience,” she said. “Those other competing variables may be more important to them than nutrition values in their food products.”

Interventions that increase nutritious food choices for low-income consumers, she says, may be a more successful way to reduce sodium intake in these groups.

The paper, “Nutrition Label Use and Sodium Intake in the U.S.,” can be found at online at www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749379717303094?via%3Dihub.

Co-authors include Yan Li and Jose A. Pagan with the Center for Health Innovation at The New York Academy of Medicine and the Department of Population Health Science at the Icahn School of Medicine; Guijing Wang with the Division of Heart and Stroke Prevention, CDC, and Andrew E. Moran with the Division of Internal Medicine and College of Physicians and Columbia University.

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