A Federal Trade Commission staff report issued today examines changes in consumers’ fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol consumption from 1977 through 1990. The study finds that advertising and labeling claims may have been an important part of the information environment helping consumers make better dietary choices during the late 1980's.
Jonathan Baker, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Economics, stated that, “This study is the latest in a long line of staff economic reports examining how seller advertising or information disclosure may help consumers to make more informed choices.” In a review of the study, W. Kip Viscusi, Professor of Law and Economics at Harvard Law School, said "This report is truly outstanding. I would rank this study among the most important assessments of information provision. Moreover, the findings are of tremendous policy importance, since they provide solid evidence concerning the constructive role that information policies have had and can potentially have in the future."
The study, conducted by current and former FTC staff economists Pauline Ippolito and Alan Mathios (Mathios is now with Cornell University), examines detailed food consumption data, as well as annual food production data, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and consumer survey data on diet-health knowledge from the Food and Drug Administration. According to the study, these different types of independent data permitted examination of consumer knowledge and behavior from several perspectives, allowing a more comprehensive assessment of how diets changed as the policies governing diet-disease claims in advertising and labeling were relaxed in the mid-1980s.
Overall, the study provides substantial evidence that fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol consumption -- for both men and women -- fell significantly between 1977 and 1990, as information spread to consumers. Available evidence also indicates that improvements in these dietary characteristics occurred more rapidly and more consistently across food choices after 1985, when health-related claims became more explicit and more frequent in advertising and labeling. For instance, the study found that fat consumption per day fell approximately five percent between 1977 and 1985, but it fell by more than twice that amount between 1985 and 1990 for both men and women.
The study also examined trends in consumer knowledge of fat-disease issues, differences in individuals’ consumption of fats and cholesterol, and differences in diet-disease knowledge. This evidence indicates that knowledge of diet-disease relationships improved during the 1980s and that fat and cholesterol reductions were widely shared across the adult population.
Although the study methodology cannot determine how much of the added improvement is due to the information environment created by health claims per se , as opposed to continuing government and public health efforts to inform consumers, or to general media coverage of these issues, Ippolito and Mathios conclude, "The available evidence is certainly consistent with the view that the relaxation of the rules governing producer health claims contributed to a better information environment, leading to improvements in consumers’ food choices. The data do not support the alternative view that producer health claims in advertising and labeling had adverse effects on consumer food choices on average; adult diets improved faster in the years when health claims rules were relaxed."
Information and Advertising Policy: A Study of Fat and Cholesterol Consumption in the United States, 1977-1990, reflects the views of its authors and not necessarily the views of the Commission or any individual Commissioner.
Copies of the study are available from the FTC’s Public Reference Branch, Room 130, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-326-2222; TTY for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710. FTC news releases and other materials also are available on the Internet at the FTC’s World Wide Web site at: http://www.ftc.gov
Office of Public Affairs
Pauline M. Ippolito
Bureau of Economics