University of Georgia

Bad habits

illustration of girl falling into vortex of fast food
Illustration by Larry Choskey and Allen Sutton

Potato chips, frozen pizza, fast-food burgers—these staples of the American diet are saturated with sodium. No surprise, then, that 90 percent of Americans eat more than the recommended amount of sodium per day, a habit that can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.

The need to reduce sodium consumption is clear, but research from UGA has shown that one popular approach—nutrition labeling—doesn’t work.

“We don’t know which interventions are most effective to reduce sodium intake in the U.S. population,” says Donglan “Stacy” Zhang, assistant professor of health policy and management at the College of Public Health and lead author of a paper published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. “The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act is the only policy in the U.S. focusing on informing consumers about sodium content on most packaged foods.”

Nutrition labels are designed to help consumers make the best food choices for their health, which is why calories, fats and other major nutrients like protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals are prominently featured.

Zhang and her collaborators examined the link between regularly reading nutrition labels and consumption of high-sodium foods. Using two consumer behavior datasets from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the researchers compared how frequently participants used nutrition labels and their daily sodium intake.

They found only a small effect. Frequent nutrition label users consumed 92 milligrams less sodium per day than infrequent nutrition label users, a reduction of about 3 percent. Indeed, label readers were still eating around 3,300 milligrams of sodium—well over the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended upper limit of 2,300 milligrams per day.

“That’s a very small reduction,” Zhang says. “Without health promotion, without any other additional education intervention, nutrition labeling has little impact on sodium consumption.”

Better label design can help, according to Zhang. The current label can present challenges to some consumers with limited education or poor command of English. Visual or color-coded designs, like the traffic light model used on food packaging in the U.K., can overcome low literacy.

“We need more research in this area, how to better design the label and how to best get this information to consumers to guide their decision-making,” she says.

Zhang also found that the effect varied widely across age, gender and socioeconomic groups. Specifically, low-income consumers were less likely to use nutrition labels.

“We suspect that low-income people are more concerned about other variables such as food prices or convenience,” she says.

Interventions that increase nutritious food choices for these consumers, she says, may prove to be more successful than labeling in spurring them to reduce sodium intake.

This story appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Research Magazine. The original press release is available at