Nutritious Nutella? All you need to know about the pitfalls of food labels

Science-ish ponders the health impact of nutrition content information



In a tale reminiscent of the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit, moms in the U.S. brought a class-action case against Nutella maker Ferrero, claiming it misled them by portraying the chocolate spread as “an example of a tasty yet balanced breakfast.” 

Their $3 million settlement came a few days after an access to information request by Postmedia revealed that some of the world’s biggest food brands and organic labels routinely lie about the nutrient make-up of their products. And this is not the first time Big Food was caught with its fingers in the proverbial cookie jar; similar studies in other jurisdictions have shown that there can be a gulf between stated and actual nutrition content.

Naturally, all this led Science-ish to wonder: Do nutrition labels affect health outcomes, and do we need a labelling revolution?

Think about all those times you sat over a colourful bowl of Lucky Charms, reading about the sugar content on the cereal box, only to go for a second marshmallow-laden helping right after. Perhaps unsurprisingly—despite the calls for labels on everything from muffins to restaurant menus—evidence of their health benefits is mixed.

In New York City, where menu labelling laws came into place in 2008, research shows that information on nutrition content “appears to have little effect on purchasing behavior,” said Marion Nestle, a New York University health policy professor and author. Consumers ignore labels, and those who bother to take a look tend to be more health-conscious anyway, she told Science-ish. Plus, many of us don’t understand the information on labels.

More evidence of the limited health impact of nutrition information comes from a new global study, published in the British Food Journal, which suggests that countries where labelling is ubiquitous are actually less healthy. “Canadian and U.S. consumers, who have access to more information sources and to more specific information, appear to be more knowledgeable about dietary fats specificities than their French counterparts,” the study read. “These overall levels of knowledge seem to be uncorrelated, however, with the healthiness of food behaviors in the general population of these countries.” Mind you, this was an observational study, so beware of confusing correlation and causation. Still, the results were intriguing.

Finally, even if everyone always read and understood nutrition information, labels often lie and food marketing misleads, as we saw with Nutella. This happens because there is little oversight of labelling practices, so Big Food can beautify or obscure the truth, to a certain extent, without running into trouble. That’s why, for instance, Kool-aid is marked with a “healthy” symbol in Canada, said David Hammond, an associate professor at Waterloo University who studies health warning labels. No wonder a study of America’s Smart Choices program—a now defunct industry-driven effort to classify healthier food options—found that 64 per cent of ‘Smart Choice’ products did not meet the non-industry standard for a healthy food option.

Are food labels totally useless then?

Those who have looked closely at the issue—like Yale University scholar Christina Roberto—tend to think that labels are “just one of many weapons in the obesity-fighting arsenal.” But she and others argue that information on nutrition content—which consumers say they do want—could provide much more powerful ammunition against bad eating choices if only we moved beyond the discreet, black and white table tacked on the back of food packages. When it comes to labels, they say, Big Food has something to learn from Big Tobacco.

The rotten lungs and limp cigarettes splashed on the front of smoke packs were a response to evidence that big, visual labels are much more effective than small, obscure text warnings. Hammond, who studied both food and cigarette labelling, told Science-ish, “The main lesson from tobacco is that product labelling and health warnings are only as effective as their design and content.” As well, giving consumers technical quantitative information, like milligrams of tar, “tends to impress them but has either no effect in guiding decision-making or can be even counter-productive given the low levels of comprehension.” For now, he concluded, “Food labelling is at the same level of sophistication as tobacco labelling 15 years ago.”

It might be a long road to better labels, though. Conservative health minister Leona Aglukkaq, for one, believes in a hands-off approach towards Big Food. Such an attitude didn’t get us far with the anti-smoking campaign, and it certainly won’t help win the war on obesity.

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, The Medical Post, and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the associate editor at The Medical Post. Got a tip? Seen something that’s Science-ish? Message her at or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto


Nutritious Nutella? All you need to know about the pitfalls of food labels

  1. Did you even read the McDonald’s Hot Coffee case you linked to? It’s hardly reminiscent of the Nutella class action. An elderly woman received 3rd degree burns requiring skin grafts and two years of treatment. McDonald’s offered her $800 in compensation. She sued them and won. How does this relate to the Nutella case?

    • I think the similarities in the two cases lie in the fact that many are incredulous that a person buying hot coffee is shocked to find it to be scalding hot when they drop it in their lap when driving their car. At same time, people are dubious that people who buy a choclate spread like nutella are suprised that it isn’t exactly nutritious. It is kind of the “duh, no kidding factor”.

      • Apparently she was in the passenger seat of a parked car when she was scalded.

        • Oh goodness, you NEVER should have gone there because now I looked it up…You are right, the 79 year-old lady was a passenger in the parked car.
          However, she took off the lid off the coffee, placed the cup between her knees so she could add cream and sugar, squeezing the paper cup and THAT is now she ended up with the hot coffee all over her lap. Meanwhile, she was wearing cotton sweatpants which soaked up the hot coffee and held it to her frail skin, ensuring the severity of the burns…not to mention she was stuck sitting in the seat of her car and couldn’t get out quickly.
          It begs the question, why didn’t she go into the restaurant and buy her coffee and prepare it at the counter? I will stand by the “duh, no kidding factor”.

          • Except that, had the same thing happened with a coffee she bought at Burger King or another such establishment, she wouldn’t have suffered that kind of burn. McDonald’s coffee was being served at a far higher temperature than was the norm for such establishments, and there was internal correspondence from store managers reporting burns because the coffee was too hot. That was one of the reasons she was awarded the claim (she had originally requested that McDonalds cover her medical expenses, she wasn’t seeking damages). What if she had walked into the store, and on the way out a rushed customer had bumped into her and spilled the hot coffee all over her chest instead?

          • I recall the case and the fact that McDonald’s coffee was too hot. I also found that this lady only got a fraction of what she asked for in damages. Your suggestion that she would not have gotten “that kind of burn” at Burger King may be true. However, with her skin fragility and if she continued her practice of holding a lidness full paper cup of coffee between her legs on a car seat while she added cream and sugar…my predicition is it was only a matter of time before she had an accident that lead to possibily a 2nd degree burn to her 79-year-old legs and pelvis. Do you think Burger King would have paid her medical bills?
            As for your “what if”….had the 79-year-old lady been on her way out, things would have been exponentially better: 1) she would have had a lid on the cup, possibly limiting how much was spilled 2) she would have already added cream and sugar to her coffee making the temperature of the beverage lower 3) most importantly, she would have been able to act on her instinct to immediately pull her burning, wet clothes away from her skin, thus limiting the extend of the burn.

  2. How about some labels for GMOs?

    • Why label something for which
      A. there is zero evidence of harmful effects* AND zero plausible pathways
      B. alternatives can label as non-GMO

      *GMOs may lead to reduced biodiversity, and there are some sticky issues regarding the relationship between companies like Monsanto and farmers. However there are no verifiable health consequences attributable to GMOs, AND there is tremendous potential for GMOs to vastly improve our health and the environment. We can make nutrient-dense breeds of crops that can grow in areas threatened by desertification. We can make broccoli that tastes good. Go science!

      • I like broccoli. I don’t want it to taste any different from what it does.

      • Even if GMOs had any positives, which the really don’t, the “sticky issues” with Monsanto, as you call them, trump everything else. Monsanto can only be described as evil – they literally stop at nothing in their pursuit of profit and market domination.

        How about avoiding desertification in the first place by using organic methods that don’t turn healthy topsoil into lifeless dust?

        This blind pursuit of “science”, which requires million dollar studies to verify things that anyone with half a brain already knows is not helping.

  3. “Give a fish to a man; he has food for a day. Teach a man to fish; he learns a skill for life.”

    Schools should teach children how to prepare and cook food – we are inept as a society. How many people are eating those delightful yellow mangoes that are in season right now?

    About 18 months ago, my missus and I decided to learn how cook food properly, learning how to cook would be something we could do together in evenings/weekends. Now, we only prepare fresh/whole food and can’t eat prepared food because it tastes odd.

    Now that I know how to cook food, my diet has improved immeasurably. We get fresh food from around the world through out the year, and not just in the summer like old days, so there is no excuse to have a poor diet other than ignorance.

    The war on fat and sugar is dumb as well. Humans need fat and sugars and we should be getting it through fatty meat, honey, fruit but instead we eat junk food because people are encouraged to eat lean meat instead of proper delicious meat like pork belly or chicken thighs.

    • Good points. Thank you.

    • I’d give anything to eat some pork from before they re-engineered the pig into being “the other white meat”.

      • It’s not too hard to find Berkshire pork or other similarly non-standard, small-farm or “heritage” breeds. It’s not as cheap as the more common pork, but it’s around.

    • I remember home economics classes in grade 8. We had a medieval feast at the end of semester and I cooked a large pot roast. Good times. Oh…and the class taught me how to cook nutritious food.

  4. “… and it certainly won’t help win the war on obesity.”

    Save us from the war on obesity. Why does this discussion never mention the fact that weight is genetical controlled? War on obesity is as useful as a war on short people who aren’t trying hard enough to grow taller. People control what food they eat but they don’t control their appetite. There are not that many people who are 60 kg overweight because they ate too many quarter pounders and big macs.

    I am tall/thin, underweight according to one of my doctors, and I think 95% of the population has a weight problem. North American calorie consumption has gone up over the past 30 years because we have food in the grocery stores year round and humans are hard wired to eat as many calories as possible because who knows when eat next.

    JAMA ~ Twin Study of Human Obesity:

    Height, weight, and body mass index (BMI) were assessed in a sample of 1974 monozygotic and 2097 dizygotic male twin pairs. Concordance rates for different degrees of overweight were twice as high for monozygotic twins as for dizygotic twins. Classic twin methods estimated a high heritability for height, weight, and BMI, both at age 20 years (.80,.78, and.77, respectively) and at a 25-year follow-up (.80,.81, and.84, respectively).

    Height, weight, and BMI were highly correlated across time, and a path analysis suggested that the major part of that covariation was genetic. These results are similar to those of other twin studies of these measures and suggest that human fatness is under substantial genetic control.

    • I knew people would -1 your answer, but I think you’re dead on (as a normal BMI guy who by all rights should be fatter than he is). We have a hormone called leptin that regulates the reward value of food. Leptin production intensifies when people try to lose weight, hitting some people harder than others. That’s why shows like Biggest Loser are profoundly misleading – they aren’t depicting sustainable weight loss (interestingly, they’ve found weight prejudice increases after people watch the show).

      • I am interested in obesity/genes because of me and my father – we look like laurel and hardy. I am six foot two, same as my father, but I weigh 170 lbs while my dad is at least 400 lbs. My dad is embarrassed he weigh so much and eats healthy for past 25 yrs while I tried to gain weight for years by eating more than I wanted.

        I read Megan McArdle blog post a couple of years ago where she mentioned Kolata’s book and I ordered it for my father.

        NY Times May 2007:

        If you had to choose, would you rather be fat or blind? When a researcher asked that question of a group of formerly obese people, 89 percent said they would prefer to lose their sight than their hard-won slimness. “When you’re blind, people want to help you. No one wants to help you when you’re fat,” one explained. Ninety-one percent of the group also chose having a leg amputated over a return to obesity.

        This is shocking. But it seems less so by the end of “Rethinking Thin,” a new book about obesity by Gina Kolata, a science reporter for The New York Times. Kolata argues that being fat is not something people have much control over. Most people who are overweight struggle to change their shape throughout their lives, but remain stuck within a relatively narrow weight range set by their genes. For those determined to foil biology, strict dieting is a life sentence. “I am a fat man in a thin man’s body,” an M.I.T. obesity researcher who shed his unwanted pounds years ago tells Kolata.

        • I’m sympathetic for similar reasons I think. Somebody I’m close to has always battled with her weight – and the genetic component of that just seems obvious when you look at her family. Everybody on her father’s side is heavy, everybody on her mother’s side is skinny. Her siblings take after her mother – she doesn’t, and has been really damaged by the scorn and shaming she’s taken over the years. “I did it, so why can’t you?”

          A really useful natural experiment I read about regarded a boy whose body didn’t produce enough leptin:
          “Anyone who doubts the power of this biologic system should study the case of a young boy in England a few years back. He had a mutation in a critical gene, the one that produces the hormone leptin. Leptin is made by fat tissue and sends a signal informing the brain that there are adequate stores of energy. When leptin drops, appetite increases. Because of a genetic error, this boy could not make this hormone, which left him ravenously hungry all of the time. At age 4 he ate 1,125 calories at a single meal—about half of what a normal adult eats in an entire day. As a result he already weighed 90 pounds and was well on his way to developing diabetes. At the time, his similarly affected cousin was 8 and weighed 200 pounds. After a few leptin injections, the boy’s calorie intake dropped to 180 calories per meal, and by the time he was 6 his weight had dropped into the normal range. Nothing changed except the hormone levels: his parents weren’t more or less permissive, his snacks did not switch from processed to organic, his willpower was not bolstered. Rather this boy was a victim of a malfunctioning weight-regulating system that led to an uncontrollable drive to eat. This examples illustrates that feeding behavior is a basic drive, similar to thirst and other life-sustaining drives. The key role of leptin and other molecules to control feeding behavior undercuts the common misconception that food intake is largely under voluntary control.”

    • Tell me you read the recent research linking obesity in pregnancy and diabetes to autism and developmental delays in the children of these women. In Canada and the US, 1 in 20 pregnant women is dangerously obese and you say, “save us from the war on obesity”.
      Maybe it was when I worked on the cardiac surgery unit and met all those people with diabetes who were below age sixty and having open heart surgery. Many were missing teeth due to their diabetes, some already had eyesite problems. Some had limbs amputated. All of this due to diabetes….an old person’s disease that we are seeing in kids as young as 16 because of an epidemic of obesity. I am not saying that there isn’t a genetic pre-disposition or issues with people’s appetite but to pretend that this is some sort of untreatable, benign condition is ridiculous.

  5. The premise behind much of these public health campaigns is the idea that people do unhealthy things because they don’t know better. Their response is to provide people with more information, oversaturating to the point of diminishing returns. Governments like this because it is non-intrusive and cheap.
    But it doesn’t work.
    By the 1970s, for instance, everybody knew smoking was unhealthy (Gallup did a poll and found the same % of smokers wanted to quit as today). But they did it anyway. Why? Because smoking is addictive and it feels good.
    Obesity rates didn’t rise because people didn’t understand that eating more calories and exercising less would make them fatter. They rose because the incentives we all face changed dramatically.
    -We moved to suburban wastelands where you have to drive to get anywhere.
    -We subsidized high-fructose corn syrup, and put it in everything.
    -We moved into service sector jobs that require minimal physical exertion.

  6. “…many of us don’t understand the information on labels…”

    Labels were not meant to be understood.
    And the food is obviously made to look as if it is good for you when not even the producer knows.

    • In all seriousness, what don’t you understand about the labels? I find them perfectly easy to read.

      • they don’t put down what they don’t want you to know!
        ex. Trans-fat, is not required to be noted by the govt. , like peanut butter it says to be 8g. of fat, but the saturated fat is 1.5 g., and the trans fat is 0 g.???,

        • I don’t know if it’s a requirement or not, but as far as I can see trans fat levels are listed on the labels.

          • for the kraft brand it is not. If you do the math, some 6.5 g. of fats are not showing, apparently if it less than a certain amount of trans-fat, it is not required to be listed on the label

          • anyways, i don’t trust anything the govt. tells us, it’s important more than ever to use your own judgement,

          • I’ll have to take your word for that, but I have never had trouble finding the amount of trans fat in food (which is becoming quite rare now anyways).
            I agree that you have to use your own judgement – but that is exactly what the nutritional labels allow you to do. How would you possibly know the levels of fat, calories, fibre, salt etc. without the label? It isn’t clear to me what you are arguing in favour of.

        • Trans-fat *is* required to be noted. Peanut butter does NOT contain trans-fat unless it contains added partially hydrogenated oil. Partially hydrogenated oil MUST be listed in the ingredient label. If it contains less than 0.5 g trans-fat per serving, they may list it as 0 g. Nutella does not contain partially hydrogenated oil, but it does contain palm oil, which is a saturated fat. That saturated fat is required to be on the nutrition label.

  7. one label that would really get attention:

    “made with GMO ingredients”

    probably have greater effect on sales than Organic and explains why Leona Aglukkaq believes in a hands-off approach towards Big Food

  8. All we can do is provide consumers with the information they need to make healthy choices – after that it is up to them. The current nutritional labels, though imperfect, provide most of the information you need. I never buy anything without reading the label, and it routinely impacts what I buy and don’t buy. Frankly I am baffled that anyone purchases food without reading the label. But that’s up to them, I suppose. If they don’t read the current label I don’t see how changing the label is really going to change anything.