Writing in the journal Appetite, the research team behind the new study noted that recent interest in making the nutritional content of food easier for consumers to understand through better nutritional labelling has suggested that consumers are better at avoiding unhealthy foods when nutrition information is accompanied by easy to understand labelling such as colour-coded cues.
"Presumably, if nutrition information were easier for consumers to understand, then consumers would be empowered to make healthful, wise consumption decisions,” said the team – led by John Milton Adams from the University of Alabama.
In their new work, Adams and his colleagues examined a new approach for increasing such consumer understanding of nutritional information on foods by assessing the effect of making sugar content information “more visually concrete.”
“Specifically, we suggest that if people could concretely visualize the sugar content in sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), they might develop more negative attitudes toward and less preference for SSBs.”
Through a series of experiments, the US-based team present evidence that putting easy to understand visual cues relating to sugar content (such as labelling with the equivalent amount of sugar cubes) reduces preference for SSBs and leads to more negative attitudes to them.
“For example, we suggest that people might have more negative views toward the idea of consuming 28 sugar cubes (concrete information), compared to consuming “70g” of sugar (abstract information),” said the team. “Indeed, we found that, without any intervention, people struggle to convert sugar grams into a concrete, physical sugar representation.”
Adams and his colleagues performed a series of four experiments, with each one testing separate aspects of their theory. First, in Experiment 1, they tested assessed whether people are generally poor at converting sugar grams into a concrete representation of sugar. Then, experiments 2 and 3 examined whether providing (vs. not providing) people with concrete representations of sugar content would reduce the attractiveness of and selection of SSBs. Finally, experiment 4 tested whether teaching people to convert abstract sugar quantities into concrete visual representations had any subsequent impact on the selection of SSBs.
“We found that providing people a way to concretely represent abstract sugar-nutrition information reduced the attractiveness (Experiment 2) and selection of SSBs (Experiments 3–4).
“In Experiment 1, we found that participants were poorer at converting abstract amounts of sugar (grams of sugar) – the type of sugar information that is traditionally presented on SSB nutrition labels – into concrete representations when they did not receive education (1 sugar cube = 2.5 g),” said the team.
For the second part of the experiment, the team found that participants rated sugary drinks as less attractive and reported reduced intentions to consume SSBs when sugar-content information was presented concretely as an image of a sugar-cube pyramid (vs. abstractly, as grams of sugar).
“As convergent validity for these self-report data in Experiment 2, participants in Experiment 3 were offered a free beverage, and they selected SSBs less frequently when SSBs were presented with concrete (vs. abstract) sugar-nutrition information,” the authors confirmed.
Furthermore, when participants learned to convert traditional, abstract sugar-nutrition information (grams) into concrete representations (sugar cubes), they chose SSBs less frequently in a subsequent, ostensibly unrelated task (experiment 4), said the team.
“It is noteworthy that the present theory was tested using tasks and procedures that varied in their content. Hence, we have reason to believe that the present effects are rather robust,” wrote Adams and his colleagues. “All in all, these findings may inform the design of health-education interventions.”
They suggested that new policy interventions designed to enhance the understanding of nutritional information on food might focus on converting common nutrition information such as grams of sugar into concrete visual representations like a pyramid of sugar cubes.
“More broadly, the present research further attests to the power of visual displays of food to affect people's food-consumption decisions,” they added.
“It is interesting to consider the current results in the context of population-level interventions that use visual displays as deterrents of cigarette consumption,” said the team. “Research has shown that some types of warning labels are more effective than others, and in some cases on-package warning labels neither increase knowledge nor decrease smoking.”
Indeed, they noted that previous research on smoking has shown that warning labels on cigarette packages are more effective when they induce self-efficacy, when they include graphic and emotionally arousing images, and when the health information is clear, specific, and accessible.
“The idea that people adjust their consumption decisions in response to concrete images of the substances that they are putting into their bodies is intriguing and might suggest a general approach to promoting other forms of healthy behaviour change,” they added.
“For instance, many people may be largely unaware of what the fat grams actually look like in a typical fast-food meal.”
Indeed, they noted that the fat grams in a typical fast food meal (Five Guys Bacon Cheeseburger and Fries Meal) can be visualised as 28 teaspoons of lard.
“Based on our research and theorising, connecting a fast-food meal with spoonfuls of lard may help to reduce preference for these unhealthy, fatty meals,” they said.
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.07.027
“Concrete images of the sugar content in sugar-sweetened beverages reduces attraction to and selection of these beverages”
Authors: John Milton Adams, William Hart, et al