In response to nutrition warning labels, manufacturers reformulate unhealthy foods

Mandatory nutrition warning labels on packaged junk foods may lead manufactures to reformulate their products with less sodium and sugar, exposing consumers to fewer harmful nutrients in their diets.

In new research published in PLOS Medicine, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Chile found there were important decreases in the levels of sugar and sodium in packaged foods and beverages within just one year of a 2016 Chilean law requiring front-of-package warning labels on unhealthy foods, showing that these kinds of regulations can lead to concrete nutritional improvements of such popular products.

“Changes in the amount of nutrient of packaged foods and beverages after the initial implementation of the Chilean Law of Food Labeling and Advertising: a nonexperimental prospective study,” was published in PLOS Medicine July 28, 2020. This is the first study to evaluate the impact of any such regulation on key disease-linked nutrients, such as sugars, sodium, saturated fats and excessive calories, in packaged foods.

UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Barry Popkin, PhD, W. R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor, and Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition, are both co-authors on the paper and part of the Global Food Research Program (GFRP) at UNC.

In the past 30 years, heavily processed packaged foods and beverages have become increasingly available and popular all over the globe, with high levels of sugar, sodium and saturated fats – nutrients that have been linked to a higher risk of chronic conditions, such as obesity and heart disease. To confront this increasingly poor health outlook in Chile, the nation’s government implemented in 2016 a four-phase law to place warning labels on foods high in these harmful nutrients and prevent them from being marketed to children.

Researchers collected nutrient content information from more than 4,000 packaged foods and beverages available in supermarkets and candy stores in the Chilean capital Santiago before the implementation of the law and one year later.

They found significant reductions of sugar and sodium in products that had been previously high in those nutrients: most carbonated and noncarbonated sugar-sweetened beverages, milks and milk-based drinks, breakfast cereals, sweet and savory spreads, sweet baked products, cheeses, ready-to-eat meats, sausages and soups. The prevalence of products for sale with warning labels that were high in sugar decreased from 80% to 60% and such products that had been high in sodium decreased from 74% to 27%. Few products reduced saturated fats.

Not only do these findings show that the industry can reformulate the sugar and sodium in their products in response to these laws, says Popkin, it shows they have the capacity to do it quickly.

“We are seeing that these laws are working as some manufacturers begin to decrease the level of harmful nutrients in products consumed by the Chilean population, a trend which will have a positive impact on their health,” says Popkin.

With Chilean partners, researchers from GFRP, a project of the Carolina Population Center, have been evaluating the various impacts of this law at each of its phases. While previous research has shown that food reformulation is a cost-effective way to prevent non-communicable diseases that are linked to poor diet, such as heart disease and obesity, there has been little evidence to show how policies promote food reformulation without mandatory regulations and policies.

“Without rigorous and independent evaluation of these policies, we can’t know if they work, and academics, media and policymakers will not have access to information they can trust,” says Popkin. “Already Israel, Peru and Mexico have replicated the Chilean warning label law and many other countries are considering it. This publication will only accelerate this trend.”

These are findings that can be translated all over the globe as other countries facing similar issues with access to healthy foods and high burdens of disease work to improve or implement laws that can protect the health of their populations, says Taillie.

“These results are relevant not only to Chile, but all over the world. Other countries are discussing the different policies that can help them improve quality of life for their citizens and confront the obesity epidemic, and we think these findings will help them tremendously,” says Taillie.


Barry Popkin, PhD



Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD