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Why Food Labeling Matters

By Abbey Becker

Allison Marco studies food labeling

Photo of Allison Marco by Abbey Becker

How many times have you stood in the cereal aisle at the grocery store and tried to decide which one to buy for your breakfast? You might not think too much about the process, but Allison Marco, MS health promotion management ’11, does—she investigated how we choose the foods we do, and how much front-of-package labeling played a part for her thesis, “The Impact of Front of Package Labeling on Low Socioeconomic Areas.”

She assisted in a study headed by Professor Stacey Snelling in DC’s Ward 7, which includes one of the city’s lowest income neighborhoods. Past studies on the effectiveness of front-of-package labeling have been done in high or average income areas, but not in low-income areas. “Ultimately, we want to compare our research to the results from Ward 3, where we are,” Marco explains. “Ward 7’s average income is around $55,000 per household, but up here it’s about $250,000. We want to see how front-of-package labeling impacts lower socioeconomic areas.”

One of the major barriers that Ward 7 residents face is being able to have choices. “They only have two main grocery stores out of the 43 that are in DC,” Marco explains. “It’s an area that’s not as effective at providing healthy foods, and that means residents might have more difficulty making healthier choices.”

Marco interviewed shoppers at the Safeway in Anacostia before they entered the store about their food shopping habits and what was most important to them when making a purchase. “I asked them if they selected foods based on taste, convenience, cost, or nutrition,” says Marco. “We’re still not sure if it was because it was the socially desirable thing to say or if they actually meant it, but nutrition came up across the board.”

She also talked to shoppers about front-of-package labeling and if it’s something they notice. “I showed them a box of Honey Nut Cheerios and asked them what stood out to them on the box,” Marco says. “Then I asked them what they thought the claims meant and what nutrition meant to them.”

After completing the interviews, Marco analyzed the research and found some discrepancies. “A good number of people said they bought fruits and vegetables, but the foods that ended up being purchased there most often are dairy and meats,” she says. The study didn’t compare Ward 3 and Ward 7, but Marco says they want to do further research using the same questions in Ward 3 to see if there’s a difference.

Marco got involved in the study at the request of Professor Snelling, also her advisor, but she’s been interested in front-of-package labeling since she was an undergraduate, when she studied nutrition. “Health in general is a growing issue in our nation,” she says. “There are problems with obesity, health care, and access to good food. Food deserts are an issue and a concern as well, and I’m interested in making sure that people in lower income areas are able to get as much good food as anyone else and be able to afford it.”

Marco recently joined a nutrition counseling company where she gets to advise others on how to lead healthier lives. “I’ve always been interested in health, and I also want a career where I can help people, and this job will let me do both,” she explains. “I’m really passionate about working with others to help them make changes in their lives.”