Do Nutrition Labels Increase Food Cravings?


Photo by: joelogon

On June 13, 1966, Miranda v. Arizona was decided by the United States Supreme Court.  And, television changed forever.  Since that date, American police dramas have used the line: You have the right to remain silent…as the universal mechanism for signalling  that the police have got their man.

Miranda was a 5-4 decision.  It was a controversial decision.  Law enforcement officials denounced Miranda as undermining the efficiency of the police and warned that it would contribute to an increase in crime.

But, in practice, Miranda had no such effect.  Instead, reading suspects their Miranda warnings lent a sense of legitimacy to subsequent police questioning.  And, rather than assert their rights, suspects routinely waived them and made statements against their own interests.

Also in 1966, the United States government mandated that all cigarette packages display  the warning, Caution: Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health. Since then, warning labels on cigarettes have grown larger and become more explicit.  With these labels from Australia likely winning the prize for greatest shock value.  Yet, despite these warnings, smoking is not a marginalized business.  Worldwide, 5,763 billion cigarettes are sold annually, which works out to about 15 billion daily, and roughly 10 million per minute.

Photos by: foboat

In chapter 1 of his book buy-OLOGY, Martin Lindstrom discusses studies in the new field of neuromarketing.  In these studies, brain activity is monitored and recorded as consumers are exposed to products, brands, advertisements, and in one study cigarette warning labels.  For this particular study, smokers were asked to complete a questionnaire about cigarette warnings.  Unsurprisingly, smokers indicated that they felt that warning labels had a deterrent effect, causing them to smoke less.   Next, the same volunteers underwent MRI scanning.  During their brain scans, images of cigarette warnings were presented to the volunteers.  The results…cigarette warnings did nothing to decrease activity in the areas of the brain associated with cravings.  Rather, the results showed that exposure to the warning labels actually stimulated activity in the nucleus accumbens, affectionately known as the craving spot.  In the end, these results indicated that cigarette warning labels do nothing to deter smoking, instead they tend to instigate cravings for cigarettes.

In the United States, pursuant to the 1990 Nutrition Labelling and Education Act, the now ubiquitous nutrition facts label was mandated for most food products.  It seems apparent enough that over the last 20 years nutrition facts labels have done nothing to deter folks from eating non-nutritious foods.  My hypothesis is that like Miranda and tobacco warnings, nutrition facts labels tend to legitimize food products and to stimulate cravings for them.

For example, without the nutrition facts label, you know that ice cream is not a healthy snack.  If, while strolling through the grocery store, you innocently pick up a carton of ice cream to read the nutrition facts label and see how bad it really is, then any latent craving for ice cream is going to spring to life and become a strong force in subsequent decision making.   At this point, the probability of buying a carton of ice cream has dramatically increased.  You may not buy the first carton of ice cream that you picked up, but the search for a carton with more appealing numbers on its nutrition facts label has likely started.  In the end, you may go home with frozen yogurt instead of ice cream, but the probability that you are going home with some sort of frozen treat is nearly inevitable.  Which may be why, grocery stores and the manufacturers of food products are always exhorting you to compare labels.  Once you start comparing labels, the question of whether you will buy something or not is likely settled, now it is only a question of what you will buy.

The best comment I have read on this topic is that you should not buy food products that come in packages and require a nutrition facts label.  Other than that annoying sticker, there is not much to read on the side of an apple.  On a more practical note, if you are undecided about whether you actually want to buy a food product or not, make up your mind before you pick it up and read the label, because once you pick it up, not buying is no longer an option.



EAT: Nootropics

EXERCISE: How To Set Goals to Meet Your Fitness and Performance Objectives

EXERCISE: The Importance of Rituals

Also SEE:

Tom Naughton’s Post: More Calorie Counting Nonsense

NY Times Well Blog: Six Meaningless Claims on Food Labels


6 responses to “Do Nutrition Labels Increase Food Cravings?

  1. Very interesting. You always find new ways of looking at things.

    • Thanks Darren. There is lots of new research demonstrating that we do not make rational decisions and worse than that, we do not recognize what is happening. Our public voice says one thing, while our brain/instincts/behavior lead us in the opposite direction. This is why self-experimentation is so important. You have to mess around with new ideas and keep track of the results to see what actually works.

      You may want to check out Dan Ariely’s work at Predictably Irrational. Also, you will want to compare this with works by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Daniel Kahneman. Here is a link to a discussion between the two of them to get you started.

  2. I’m sure this is correct but why did you pick up the ice cream, was the craving only reinforced by reading the label, so now do I have to drive to town for ice cream?????

    • Yes – possibly to both. The fact that you are considering the purchase indicates that there is some craving, but there are likely countervailing motivations too (budget, health, is it worth the long trip into town). So, if the debate is about whether or not to buy, reading the label won’t help you make an independent decision, rather, it will drive you to buy. Best to make up your mind before hand, rather than rely on the label to help you decide this preliminary issue.

  3. I really enjoyed this post. I found you through your comment on Diane Levin’s blog and took up your recommendation to read Crimes Against Logic Brilliant – so thank you

    • Amanda-You are welcome. That is one of my all time favorites. I have to reread it occasionally just to keep myself in line.

      BTW, your blog design is gorgeous – – I will be digging deep into it and listening to the Cafe Mediate II podcast tomorrow.

      Glad you enjoyed the post.

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