Nutritional warning labels are applied to food and drink products that exceed thresholds for energy content and various risk nutrients
Mandatory nutritional warning labels have been implemented (or are in the process of implementation) in 10 countries around the world, 8 of them in Latin America
In most countries that have implemented nutritional warning labels, they are shaped as black octagonal ‘stop’ signs that display exceed specified limits for sugar, sodium, saturated fat, and/or energy content (calories)
Evidence indicates nutritional warning labels can be effective in promoting healthier purchases, improving consumer knowledge, and encouraging food companies to develop healthier products
There is potential to combine mandatory nutritional warning labels with other front-of-package labelling systems (such as Australia’s Health Star Rating)
Introduction to nutritional warning labels
By design, the aim of nutritional warning labels is to highlight specific unhealthy components of food products. This contrasts with other types of FOPNL, including positive endorsement type logos that highlight healthier choices, or summary indicators like the Health Star Rating which combine nutritional information to provide an overall assessment of a product's nutritional quality on a spectrum from less healthy to more healthy.
Mandatory nutritional warning labels have been introduced, announced or are under active consideration by governments around the world, following their successful implementation in Chile in 2016. In Latin America, several countries have introduced black warning labels shaped like stop signs. The labels are required to be displayed on the front of packaged food and drinks that exceed specified limits for sugar, sodium, saturated fat, and/or energy content (calories). In some countries, such as Mexico and Argentina, additional warning labels are required to be displayed on products that contain non-nutritive sweeteners or caffeine, along with the wording ‘not recommended for children’. Nutritional warning labels are designed to indicate unhealthy choices, rather than providing positive endorsements or summary indicators of a product’s composition.1
In some countries, the relevant labelling legislation is integrated with other policies. For example, food products with warning labels cannot be marketed or advertised on TV and other mass media in Chile and Mexico, and cannot be sold in schools in Chile, Argentina and Peru.
Countries implementing nutritional warning labels
Ten countries worldwide have regulated to implement (or are in the process of regulating) mandatory warning labels. In Chile, Peru, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina and Israel, mandatory labelling is already in place. Canada, Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela are in the implementation phase (Figure 1). The format and wording of the labels are similar across countries, with some variations.
Figure 1. Adoption of nutritional warning labels around the world (last updated 27 July 2023)
In 2016, Chile was a pioneer in adopting a mandatory nutritional warning label law. The law requires all packaged food and drinks that exceed particular nutrient-specific thresholds to display a black octagonal warning on the front of their packages with the message 'high in'. The law also prohibits sales of products carrying warning labels in schools and bans advertising of these products to children under 14 years old.2
In Mexico, black octagonal nutritional warning labels have been in place since 2020, with legislation requiring food and beverages to carry a nutritional warning label with the message ‘excessive in’ if the products exceed thresholds for sugar, sodium, saturated fats and calories; and a rectangular warning message if a product contains trans fats. In addition, warning messages saying ‘not recommend to children’ must also be displayed on labels if a product contains non-nutritive sweeteners or caffeine. Products with one or more warning labels cannot include any marketing strategies directed towards children, such as cartoon characters, pictures of celebrities or athletes, games or interactive elements on the packaging.34
Labelling rules are similar in several other Latin American countries, including Uruguay, Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina. In Argentina, like in Mexico, products with non-nutritive sweeteners or caffeine must display the message ‘not recommended for children’ on the labels. The Argentinean law prohibits advertising, promotion, and sponsorship of products with nutritional warning labels in educational establishments under the National Education System. In addition, products with nutritional warning labels cannot use product claims to highlight their nutritional or healthy properties.56
Beyond Latin America, front-of-pack labelling laws have been passed in Israel and Canada. In Israel, the government has introduced red nutritional warning labels for products high in sugar, sodium and saturated fat. In Canada, 2022 legislation requires all packaged foods to carry a black and white magnifying glass and the message ‘high in’ if the products exceed thresholds for saturated fats, sodium and sugar. The food industry has until 2026 to display the new labels on their products.7
In 2023, nutritional warning labels were also under active consideration in South Africa.8
Mandatory nutritional warning labels help promote healthier diets
Growing evidence around the globe indicates that mandatory nutritional warning labels can contribute to efforts to promote healthy diets. It is likely that the mandatory (rather than voluntary) nature of implementation in all countries that have put in place nutritional warning labels is a critical success factor.9
Impact on the healthiness of food purchases
Mandatory nutritional warning labels were demonstrated to both increase consumers’ selection of more healthful products and decrease their selection of less healthful products.10 In Chile, the mandatory labelling and marketing regulations led to reductions in purchases of “high in” foods, resulting in reductions in the energy (2.5%), sugar (10.2%), sodium (3.9%) and saturated fat (2.2%) of food purchases.11 Another evaluation focusing on “high in” beverages indicated purchases of these drinks decreased by 24% following mandatory introduction of the labels, with similar reductions in purchases seen across households with high and low levels of education.12 The effect was greater than that seen following the introduction of stand-alone sugary drink reduction policies, such as taxes, in other South American countries. Researchers could not separate out the effects of the different components of the new measures (mandatory labelling, marketing restrictions, sales bans in preschools and schools) in achieving these reductions.
Impact on consumer understanding and use of information
Evidence also shows warning labels can improve consumer understanding of product nutrient content. In Uruguay, for example, surveys have found high awareness and self-reported use of nutritional warning labels after their mandatory implementation. Participants’ understanding of how to compare nutritional information between products and identify unhealthy foods also improved.16 Similarly, in Mexico, 72% of surveyed consumers considered nutritional warning labels to be helpful for decision making during food purchasing.17
Impact on healthiness of the packaged food supply
Evaluations suggest that food companies have reformulated their products in response to the Chilean labelling and marketing laws. Studies have observed extensive reductions in energy, sugar and sodium content of pre-packaged foods and beverages, after the mandatory regulations were implemented.1819 However, after implementation of the Chilean laws, there was an increase in products with non-nutritive sweeteners. This suggests laws have prompted industry to partially or fully replace sugars in products with non-nutritive sweeteners.20
Nutritional warning labels could support other front-of-pack labelling measures in Australia
The Health Star Rating (HSR) is the FOPNL system endorsed by the government in Australia and New Zealand, with implementation currently on a voluntary basis. The World Health Organization recommends that governments endorse the use of a single FOPNL scheme in each country.21 However, preliminary research in Australia suggests that on-package nutritional warning labels, used in conjunction with the Health Star Rating system, may help to discourage the consumption of unhealthy products.2223 Given the existing commitment to the Health Star Rating in Australia, there may be benefits to integrating nutritional warning labels alongside, or as part of, the Health Star Rating scheme. Further research is needed to better understand mechanisms to integrate nutritional warning labels into already implemented front-of-pack labelling measures and the likely benefits of doing so. Such research should assess whether such integration is necessary in the Australian context if the Health Star Rating were to be made mandatory.
Content for this page was written by Tailane Scapin and Jasmine Chan, Deakin University and reviewed by Alexandra Jones, The George Institute and Gary Sacks, Co-Director at the Global Centre for Preventive Health and Nutrition at Deakin University. For more information about the approach to content on the site please see About | Obesity Evidence Hub.