The Food Warning Label Dilemma: How Front-of-Package Labels Fall Short in Tackling Obesity and Other Diseases

In recent years, front-of-package labeling warnings and traffic-light food rating systems have gained momentum as a tool for combating obesity and promoting healthier diets. Many countries have adopted these systems or are considering their implementation to reduce obesity rates, which have rapidly increased in the past decades, and prevent other illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases. However, these warning labels are not as persuasive and effective as many public officials believe, and even worse, implementing these labels without complementary policies could be detrimental to health outcomes.

Front-of-package labeling and traffic-light food rating systems were designed as a simple and accessible way to help consumers make informed choices about the food they consume. By indicating when a product surpasses government-established thresholds for salt, sugar, and fat content, these labels provide visual warnings to guide healthier choices. However, visual warnings alone are often insufficient to improve eating habits and shift obesity patterns. The labels have even had unintended consequences and negative side effects in some contexts. 

Undoubtedly, front-of-package and traffic-light ratings have affected a portion of the food households consume on a regular basis. Two primary mechanisms have driven these changes. The first involves consumers modifying their behavior and consuming different products. For example, individuals choose to stop buying high-calorie foods and choose a product that appears to be healthier. The second mechanism involves producers changing their product formulas to avoid hitting the thresholds and labeling their products unhealthy. 

The first mechanism often proves weak or even counterproductive. In many countries, the warnings do not significantly impact consumer decisions. For example, an experiment in Argentina showed that certain labels were less effective in influencing consumer choices than others.1 For instance, an octagonal black warning sign successfully reduced buying intention and the perceived health benefits of a product, whereas a traffic-light label failed to alter buying intentions and mistakenly increased the perceptions of healthiness. Similarly, in Germany, another experiment that tested different types of food, including drinks, sauces, meat, dairy, cereals, fruits, and snacks, found that although some labels help change healthiness perceptions, people are unlikely to change actual consumption when they like the flavor of those products.2 Moreover, in Ecuador, analysis suggests that people have replaced nutritional foods like yogurt with less nutritional products such as sodas with artificial sweeteners.3 This is because the warnings flag only sugary, salty, or high-fat content as unhealthy but do not provide clear and concise information about a product’s overall nutritional value. In Chile, the front-of-package labels only helped modify people’s behavior when they had mistakenly believed a product was healthy when it was not. The labels did not change people’s behavior when they were aware that the product they were consuming was unhealthy, failing to promote healthier habits.4

The second mechanism involves producers changing product formulas to avoid labeling. At first glance, this could sound positive, as producers reevaluate their products to make them healthier. However, it is fundamental to note that producers tend to modify their products just enough to remain under the threshold. They are not modifying their products to be healthier or more nutritious. More worrisome, reformulating the products has entailed replacing regular sugar with artificial sweeteners, which are associated with high-risk illnesses. A recent article by Julie Corliss, Executive Editor of Harvard Heart Letter, highlights how artificial sweeteners “may do more harm than good.”5 The article argues that artificial sweeteners are negative for health as they increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, which include strokes and heart attacks. Due to food labels, in many contexts, consumers do not have the option to choose whether to consume artificial sweeteners since companies protect their own interests, replacing the sugar with artificial sweeteners to avoid the mandated warnings in their packages. 

However, some food warning label programs show that visible and easy-to-read warnings can help influence a country’s food consumption patterns. Studies show that in Chile, individuals reduced their caloric intake by 6%, and calories purchased for every dollar spent decreased from 7 to 9% immediately after the policy was passed.6 Similarly, in Denmark, front-of-package labels have helped reduce sugar and increase fiber intake, and improve the overall quality of the diet. Notably, some of the food warnings in Denmark indicate healthy products rather than unhealthy ones.7 This presents a viable alternative to prevent consumers from replacing nutritional foods due to the misunderstanding of the overall nutritional qualities of the products.

Front-of-package warnings indeed show promise as a policy tool with the potential to combat obesity and other health issues. However, relying solely on these labels will not yield the desired shift in societal patterns and improvements in health outcomes. Consequently, countries considering the adoption of this policy should study the experiences of others and develop a more comprehensive approach. Additionally, countries already implementing this policy must critically assess and refine it.

To effectively fight obesity and cardiovascular diseases, a multifaceted strategy that promotes healthy habits, such as proper nutrition and regular exercise, is crucial. Raising public awareness about the consequences of high-calorie diets and educating people on making healthier food choices is essential. Furthermore, governments will have to continue to fight large corporations’ interests, as they have enormous influence in employing advertising and product development to shape not only consumer purchasing choices but also their actual consumption of unhealthy foods.

Estefania Suarez is a Master of Public Policy candidate (’24) at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.


  1. Castronuovo, L. et al. (2022). Efficacy of different front-of-package labeling systems in changing purchase intention and product healthfulness perception for food products in Argentina. Rev Panam Salud Publica, 46: e137. ↩︎
  2. Borgmeier, I., Westenhoefer, J. (2009). Impact of different food label formats on healthiness evaluation and food choice of consumers: a randomized-controlled study. BMC Public Health 9, 184. ↩︎
  3. Fornasini, M., Robles-Rodríguez, J., & Baldeon, M. E. (2023). The traffic light labeling could induce consumers to increase intake of artificial sweeteners and potentially enhance their cardiovascular risk: the case of Ecuador. Public health, 223, e1–e2 ↩︎
  4. Barahona, N. et al. (2023). Equilibrium Effects of Food Labeling Policies. Econometrica, Volume 91, Issue 3  ↩︎
  5. Corliss, J. (2023). Sugar substitutes: New cardiovascular concerns? in Harvard Health Publishing ↩︎
  6. Barahona, N. et al. (2022). On the Design of Food Labeling Policies. SSRN. ↩︎
  7. Rønnow H. N. (2020). The Effect of Front-of-Pack Nutritional Labels and Back-of-Pack Tables on Dietary Quality. Nutrients, 12(6), 1704. ↩︎