Friday, January 28

“Without education, black stamps in food are likely not to have the expected results”

Q: Do you think the front labeling law will achieve your goals of, for example, reducing obesity?

Federico Fros Campelo: Legislation that aims to reduce obesity levels and educate the consumer should consider much more than the nutrients or ingredients of a food. It should take into account, on the one hand, the population: age groups, income level, level of education, accessibility to food. And most of all, you should consider what happens to people when we make decisions. For example, how temptation works inside our heads, what we pay attention to and what we don’t, how we react to immediate rewards and punishments, and how we form long-term habits. This means that if what you are looking for are public policies that have an effective impact on reducing the obesity epidemic, the main thing is to understand how people make decisions.

Q: How do you think the labels will influence consumer decision-making?

F.F.C.: The decisions that a person makes when choosing the food to eat are not something that came out of a cabbage. It is not true that, in front of a gondola, our brain behaves as if our previous decisions or the context did not exist. The truth is that, although we do not realize it, our mind comes with a tremendous trajectory that has a strong weight when deciding. For our brain, an information label is one more piece of information within a tsunami of stimuli (information that we previously know about the food, experiences of taste, aroma, texture and color, emotional relationships with the food and expectations). So, the big question of behavioral sciences is: regardless of the shape it has and whether or not it obeys a regulation, can an informational sign compete with everything else that comes to mind when choosing what to eat? ? The answer is that, according to the available evidence, desire and previous experiences may override the evaluation of informational signs.

Q: Most foods will haveá labelled head-on warning, could that go against the spirit of the law?

F.F.C.: The attention we pay or not to things must also be considered when designing public policies. One of the properties of our attention is that it is “differential”, that is, you pay attention to things that are different. When things remain the same, when nothing changes, when stimuli are prolonged in time and become omnipresent, nothing catches your attention. If something persists without affecting us directly, it is no longer a threat and our mind can stop taking it into account. Just as an air conditioner that is on leaves our auditory field until we detect that it is turned off, an overabundance of identical black labels on everything you can grab in the gondolas will come out of what we consider “relevant” in our visual field. We will end up getting used to it until we naturalize the labeling in such a way that we would find it indifferent or indistinct. Thus, the black warning stamps would not promote changes in consumption or habits or lifestyles.

Q: You often mention the concept of “nudges”, could you explain it?

F.F.C: The concept of “nudge” is relatively new and means “giving a push” to incline a person to decide for one thing and not another, but with two fundamental premises: without taking away freedom and without the design of the “push” be imposing and bulky. The latter means that the factor must be simple. A good example of “nudge” in university canteens would be that in the journey that the student takes to choose what to eat, the healthiest products are exposed first and in greater quantity than the products with saturated fat, sodium and sugars. Another example is the offer of healthier food and drink combos with more accessible prices. In principle, food labeling in the form of a warning is intended to be a “nudge.” However, if we consider how humans make decisions, it is unfortunately likely that food labeling in the form of black stamps will not have the expected results.

Q: What is the best way to promote habitos healthy?

F.F.C.: You have to take into account the role that the emotional plays. Scientifically speaking and taking into account how the brain works, it is emotions that drive people’s decisions. And what happens with nutritional information, regardless of whether it is on food packaging, whether it is regulated or not, in the form of seals or traffic lights or whatever, is still mere information. There is no emotional transfer from that information to the consumer. It has been shown, in neuroscience studies, that the horrendous images on cigarette boxes are not taken into account because what prevails is the desire to smoke over the assessment of the warning. At the level of brain processes, temptation will almost always outperform information, and consequently, information will have little deterrent power. The warnings can promote sustainable changes in habits only if they are accompanied by other stimuli around, for example, permanent nutritional education.


Unicef ​​OPS and Fao ask that there be no delays to enact the front labeling of food law.

Q: Is it enough to report?

F.F.C: When it comes to improving habits or changing behaviors, information is not always enough, and less so when that information is also incomplete. For example, the approved law speaks of critical nutrients, but does not refer to the rest of the nutrients that a food may have, many of them necessary for good health. So when a person goes to the supermarket and sees, for example, a package of potato chips and a yogurt, both with the same seal (for example, high in fat), it will be difficult to make the healthiest decision. Warnings alone do not promote habit changes.

Q: why?

F.F.C: It happens that the approach for this to happen should be comprehensive and include permanent nutritional education, which among other things includes information on all the different nutrients that a food provides. For example, highlighting both the critical nutrients in excess and the essential positive nutrients whose consumption is necessary to promote. Also, perhaps, making the equivalent of quantities known to the population (teaspoons, cups, glasses, slices, etc.). Suppose that a behavioral change we are looking for is for a consumer to reduce their intake of sugar or sodium. If both a cheese with -for example- 50 mg of sodium per 30g (2 slices or 1 slice) and another with 100 mg both carry the black stamp of “Excess Sodium”, the warning does not stimulate behavior change. It could be convoking for the regulation that, instead of stamps, the warning system is something similar to a traffic light, something that has been implemented in other countries. Now suppose that another change in behavior that we seek is that the consumer, regardless of the amount of sugar, increases the consumption of positive essential nutrients (proteins, vitamins, calcium). It would not be the same to consume 100 ml. (half a glass) of soda that contained 7 grams of sugar, or the same volume of yogurt that contained those same 7 grams of sugar. Because, among other things, yogurt provides those proteins, vitamins and calcium while soda does not. It could be compelling for regulation not only that excess critical nutrients were grounds for negative warning symbols, but also that the presence of essential nutrients were grounds for positive rating symbols.

P: ¿QuIt’s effects, he believes, then, that he will haveá the front labeling law?

F.F.C.: I think that when the novelty of the stamps passes and they become naturalized, people may continue to consume the same as always without changing their habits, but with the aggravation of considering that everything is generically bad. This possible internal narrative of people is the narrative that I fear the most. Because it turns out to be a narrative that makes us go back in the boxes, when what we want is to keep moving towards a better diet.