Nutrition label slackers

I confess to reading nutrition labels only some of the time – and when I do, I tend to zero in on fat, sugar, sodium and total calories and skip the rest of the ingredients.

Apparently this slacker-style behavior isn’t much different from that of most consumers. In an intriguing study by University of Minnesota researchers, an eye tracking device was used to measure whether people really read food labels as carefully as many of us claim we do.

The findings uncovered a sizable gap: Although one-third of the study participants said they almost always look at the calorie count on a food label, eye tracking revealed only 9 percent actually did this for most of the products included in the study. The results were even lower for trans fat and sugar content and serving size; 20 to 30 percent of the participants claimed they checked these most of the time when they shopped for groceries but the tracking device showed they actually did so only 1 percent of the time.

The study appears in the November issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, and it raises an interesting issue: Do consumers really read food labels?

It’s not an idle question. Months of study and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of resources have been invested in developing nutrition labels to guide American shoppers as they make choices in the grocery store. The labels have been required by law since 1990 and appear on 6.5 billion different food products.

In theory, it should be helping us make good food-shopping decisions. In reality,  though, the presence of nutrition labels doesn’t automatically guarantee a benefit to the consumer.

Previous studies have found that somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of consumers say they consistently read nutrition labels. In the 2008 Health and Diet Survey, for instance, which was conducted by the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an impressive 66 percent of survey respondents said they often read food labels to check for calories, fat, sodium and vitamins.

But about one in four said they rarely or never looked at the label to get a general idea of the product’s nutritional content. And nearly one in five admitted to never using the information on nutrition labels to help with meal planning.

Surveys like this can be somewhat unreliable because they’re based on self-reporting, which isn’t always accurate. What’s intriguing about the U of M study is how it strips away the subjective assessment in favor of objective measures.

The researchers lined up 203 study participants for a simulated grocery shopping exercise involving 64 different grocery products displayed on a computer screen. Each screen contained three elements: the nutrition label, a picture of the product and list of ingredients, and a description of the product with price and quantity. Study participants knew their eye movements would be tracked but they weren’t told the focus of the study was the nutrition labels.

The eye-tracking data made it clear that many consumers overestimate how often and how carefully they read food labels, the researchers concluded. Among their findings: Of those who did read the nutrition label, the average person only looked at the first five lines.

Here’s an interesting discovery, though: The nutrition label’s location seemed to make a difference. The researchers found that the study participants were more likely to read food labels, and to take more time scanning the information, when the label appeared in a central position.

Nutrition labels might be more widely used and more helpful to the consumer if the label is placed centrally on the package and the most important ingredients listed near the top, the University of Minnesota researchers suggested. “Because knowing the amounts of key nutrients that foods contain can influence consumers to make healthier purchases, prominently positioning key nutrients, and labels themselves, could substantially impact public health,” they said in an accompanying news release.

Well, I don’t know.

Food labels are essential to anyone who needs to be on a restricted diet or who is serious about making changes in how they eat. But so far there’s a disappointing lack of evidence that providing consumers with more nutritional information is leading to widespread difference in behavior. When researchers assessed whether residents of New York City changed their habits after a law went into effect in 2008 requiring restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, they found that only one in six customers ordered something lower in calories.

Is it the design and placement of nutrition labels that’s the issue, or is there something deeper going on – namely, the difficulty of getting people to use nutrition information in ways that translate into meaningful behavior change?

What do readers think? Do you read nutrition labels? Do you think they’re helpful?

For more information on how to use and understand food labels, click here.

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