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We read nutrition labels less than we think, U of M study finds

Could nutrition labeling be better designed?
CC/Flickr/The Consumerist
Could nutrition labeling be better designed?

Most of us know we should be eating more nutritious foods. But we keep consuming excess calories, sugar, trans fat and other not-so-good-for-us stuff, primarily from packaged foods.

No wonder it’s currently estimated that 85 percent of American adults will be overweight and a shocking 50 percent will be obese by 2030.

Nutrition labeling is supposed to help us make more healthful food choices, and some research suggests that it can help us do that. The problem is, we often don’t bother to read food labels when we’re in the grocery aisles. Or we misunderstand them when we do read them.

Could food labels be better designed? That question is at the heart of a new study by Dan Graham and Robert Jeffery, two epidemiologists with the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota.

And the answer to that question, at least from this study’s results, is a resounding “Yes.”

“I definitely think that a more simplified [labeling] system would work better, given the pattern of label viewing we saw,” said Graham in a phone interview Monday.

Study details
For the study, which was published Monday in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Graham and Jeffery recruited 203 adults with an ad placed in Minnesota Parent magazine. The volunteers were asked to sit in front of a computer and decide whether they would or would not purchase 64 different packaged grocery items (things like pizza, soup, ice cream and crackers) as the items were shown one by one on the computer’s screen.

The screen contained three elements for each grocery item: the food’s price and description (brand names not included), a photograph of the food, and the Nutrition Facts label for that item. The location on the screen of these three elements varied. It showed up on the left, right or center of the screen for different groups of the volunteers.

All the volunteers viewed the screen through a special device that tracks eye movements. They were told their eye movements would be followed, but they weren’t told that the study was about nutrition labels. Only after the experiment was over were they asked to fill out a questionnaire about how often they read nutrition labels when they’re food shopping.

The study found, perhaps not unsurprisingly, that consumers look at specific components on nutrition labels less often than they say they do. Some 33 percent of the study volunteers said they almost always look at calorie content on labels, for example, yet the study found that only 9 percent did so for almost all (more than 80 percent) of the products they “bought” or rejected in the study.

The gap between what-I-say-I-do and what-I-actually-do was even greater for other components on food labels. Of the study’s volunteers, 31 percent said they almost always look at what a label says about total fat, 20 percent at what it says about trans fats, and 24 percent at what it says about sugar. In addition, 26 percent said they checked the serving size on labels before purchasing a food.

In the study, however, only 1 percent of volunteers actually looked at any of these components almost all of the time.

In fact, only 6 of the 203 volunteers looked at every component of even a single label.

And you didn’t have to stare very long at the label for it to “count” in this study. “If someone looked at the label for 50 milliseconds we classified that as having looked at the label,” explained Graham.

Location, location, location
More surprising, perhaps, was the study’s finding about the positioning of the Nutrition Facts label. Location mattered.

When the labels appeared in the center column of the computer screen, the study’s volunteers read one or more sections of 61 percent of the labels. But when the Nutrition Facts labels appeared in the left or right column of the screen, volunteers read one or more sections in less than 40 percent of the labels.

Also, the volunteers spent 30 percent more time viewing the labels when they were positioned front and center.

“Marketers know what they’re doing,” said Graham. “They put things where they know people will view them. I guess we in public health should do the same.”

“If we put nutrition labeling in a more prominent position, it will be read,” he added.

Some reordering may be needed
The order of information on nutrition labels also mattered. Most people, this study suggests, look at only the top five lines of a Nutrition Facts label. Currently, those five items are serving size, calories, total fat, saturated fat and trans fat.

Yet, other research has found that people are most interested in information about fat, calories, sodium and sugar. And two of those — sodium and sugar — are not among the top five components of nutrition labels.

“It is worth re-evaluating whether the current state of nutrition science and public health supports this 20-year-old structure [of the current Nutrition Facts label], or whether a nutrient like sugar, which currently appears in the 10th position from the top, merits, based on health-impact, a higher label position,” write Graham and Jeffery in their study’s conclusion.

New, but not necessarily simpler, labels on the way

Last week, the independent, non-profit Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its two-years-in-the-making recommendations for simpler, front-of-the-package nutritional labeling. Similar to the “energy star” rating labels on appliances, the new food labels would give packaged food and beverages 0-3 stars based on how many key nutrients (added sugars, sodium, and saturated or trans fats) they contain. It would also prominently display how many calories are in each serving of the food — and exactly what (slice, cup, bar) a realistic serving is.

Based on his research, said Graham, “those new labels seem like a pretty good idea.”

But don’t expect to see the IOM-recommended labels soon. As the New York Times reported, the Food and Drug Administration says it’s continuing to “assess the topic.”

Meanwhile, the Grocery Manufacturers of America has made it clear that it intends to proceed with its own revamped food labels. Although the new industry-designed nutrition labels will be more prominently placed than the old ones, they’re likely to remain confusing to consumers. (When a label says “14 g sugars,” do you know what that means?)

The U of M study is behind a paywall, but you can view a video of Graham describing the study below.

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