Judging a food by its label
While opportunities to socialise may have dwindled in recent times, our food options in Singapore remain vast. Between increased grocery runs and more frequent takeout meals, our buying and eating choices are often influenced by food labels.
By Keri McCrickerd
Making sense of the modern food environment
Even as Singapore cautiously reopens its eateries, it's a known fact that this foodie nation has never been short on food or the appreciation of it. You need only set foot in a supermarket, food court, hawker centre, or open your favourite delivery app to know this to be true. However, with the increasing prevalence of diet-related diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes – coupled with a climate crisis – our choices as consumers are becoming increasingly significant.
Challenging our perception of the "healthier" choice
Front-of-pack nutrition and health labels like Singapore’s Healthier Choice Symbol (HCS) were developed to inform and guide our food choices in a way that makes the "healthier" choice the easier one. The Health Promotion Board’s flagship symbol has been applied to approximately 3,500 different products spanning 60 food and beverage categories.
More importantly, research has shown that consumers interpret these "streamlined" health messages more favourably than comprehensive nutrition fact panels, making them an attractive option for health promotion strategies aimed at influencing population-level food choices. But with such widespread application, are these labels always having the desired impact?
The human perceptual system has evolved to help us navigate our environment in a way that is efficient and safe. Learning, memory and attention processes help to turn incoming sensory signals (from sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound) into useful information that we can use to make predictions about the world around us. These predictions help us to make decisions quickly and with little conscious effort.
However, when it comes to front-of-pack nutrition labels, any errors in our predictions can have important consequences. By investigating beliefs about different health-related labels, we found that the products with the HCS label were not only believed to be healthier than unlabelled products, but they were expected to be lower-calorie too, which was not part of the health message1. Some of the HCS products were also selected in larger portion sizes and people were willing to pay more for them. Furthermore, instant noodles labelled with 'no MSG' or 'organic' were judged to be healthier and contain less calories than unlabelled options, even though these products were nutritionally similar (MSG, for example, does not influence the calorie content of noodles).1
These biases are called halo effects, which occur when one perceived positive attribute ('this has no MSG’) is overgeneralised to include other positive attributes (‘this has less calories too’), often without us realising.
Tricking taste buds
Halo effects explain our natural tendency to misinterpret positive nutrition messages, like a food being labelled 'healthier'. But it is not just food choices that can be biased. When we asked participants to consume soy milks with and without the HCS label attached, we found that they actually experienced the drinks with the HCS labels to be less sweet and less thick. Since our participants were consuming the exact same drinks on both occasions (so the sensory input was the same), it was the label that shifted their perception of the drinks' taste and texture2.
We found similar effects for a “Reduced Sugar” label too1. This is called assimilation, and describes how the perception of sensory stimuli (like flavour) can be shifted to be more in line with an initial prediction. Whether they knew it or not, our participants had expected these labelled soy milks to be less thick and sweet-tasting, and as a result experienced them this way. Thankfully, our participants still liked the taste of the drinks overall, but there have been instances where consumers have reported reduced liking for foods with 'healthier’ labels attached3.
Accounting for consumer perceptions in the Singapore Food Story
As more time and resources are invested in "future foods" designed to promote healthier and more sustainable diets, we need to continually evaluate how to present these products to consumers in a way that promotes the best choices and behaviours. One example of this is the growing trend for plant-based alternative proteins designed to look and taste like animal meat. Plant-based "meat" patties, for example, can provide a more sustainable way to enjoy a meaty meal. But does that mean they are always better for you too? Not necessarily.
The halo effect might lead us to assume that more sustainable plant-based products are also "natural" and much healthier options. In reality, they can (though not always) be highly processed and contain just as much salt, fat or calories than the original meat options3, so they need to be consumed in moderation. On the other hand, assimilation effects might mean that regular meat eaters fail to fully accept the taste of these more sustainable alternatives if they don’t line up with their initial expectations.
Navigating food labels
As consumers, we need to be more critical of health-related food labels and challenge our natural tendency to misinterpret their meanings by looking at ingredient lists and scrutinising detailed nutrition information.
Labels like ‘healthier’ are often used in a very specific way – only referring to a specific portion size or brand – yet everyday consumers interpret them very broadly. This means that the food industry, public health organisations and researchers in Singapore need to work together to create better strategies to communicate the specific benefits of foods in a way that corrects the perceptual biases consumers face. After all, if knowledge is power then we need to get the message right.
1. McCrickerd, K.; Tang, C.S.; Forde, C.G. The independent and combined impact of front-of-pack labelling and sensory quality on calorie estimations and portion selection of commercial food products. Food Q. Prefer. 2020, 79, 103766. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2019.1037662.
2. K McCrickerd, PPS Tay, CS Tang, CG Forde. Using Sensory Cues to Optimise the Satiety Value of a Reduced-Calorie Product Labelled ‘Healthier Choice’. Nutrients, 12(1), 107; 2020 https://doi.org/10.3390/nu120101073.
ABOUT THE AUTHORDr Keri McCrickerd is a senior research fellow at the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS) and a research psychologist specialising in eating behaviour. Through her research, she aims to understand why we eat the way we do and develop strategies to promote health and well-being through regulation of appetite and food intake. Her work combines behavioural studies with insights gained from the GUSTO birth cohort and partnerships with local schools.