Getty Images/Cultura RF

A new study suggests a bit of lying by omission on labels could help consumers maintain a lower-calorie diet.

Mike Pomranz
August 28, 2017

Food companies commonly reformulate their products, often advertising these changes on the packaging with a proclamation like "new great taste" or "now with 10 percent less [something you're glad to be getting less of]," all as an attempt to increase sales by luring in both new and old customers alike. But what if a brand decided to change its recipes not to boost its own sales, but to try to improve your health—and the company didn't even tell you about it? A new study suggests that this kind of "silent" product reformulation might actually be a way for supermarkets to help customers cut calories.

In a recently published study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, a pair of researchers in Denmark looked at a year's worth of sales of the private-label brand of a large Danish retail chain. They specifically homed in on eight products that were "silently" reformulated to contain fewer calories—meaning that nutrition facts were updated, but customers weren't explicitly informed of the changes. What they found was that these changes did tend to lead to shoppers purchasing fewer calories in the products' respective categories, though the reformulations also led to a moderate loss in sales revenue as well.

Still, the research suggests that any small negative impact to the retailer was outweighed by the benefit to consumers. "Silent product reformulation may not achieve dramatic reductions in the population's calorie intake," said Jorgen Dejgaard Jensen, the study's lead author. "But there seems to be little doubt that it can reduce calorie intake, and that it can do so at a relatively low cost." He also suggested that reformulations on a larger scale may have even more significant results. "Previous research has indicated that through a sequence of such marginal product reformulations, it may be possible to undertake more substantial changes in food products' nutritional characteristics, and still maintain consumers' acceptance of the products."

Of course, some customers might be wary of the idea of that their favorite products are being tweaked without their knowledge. But hey, next time that supermarket brand cereal tastes funny, maybe that's just the flavor of you getting healthier?