Obesity continues to be a growing health threat. In fact, a 2008 study estimated that by the year 2030, 85% of all Americans will be overweight, and more than 50% of adults will be obese. Nutrition labels can act as an important aid in helping consumers eat healthier, and have been found to decrease daily intake of calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and to increase intake of fiber. But many consumers don’t understand the nutrition labels on the products they buy, and a large percentage of them don’t even read the labels at all. The question is why?
Researchers at the University of Minnesota set out to discover if nutrition facts labels are optimally designed to help consumers make healthier food choices. More specifically, they looked at how the locations of components on Nutrition Facts labels relate to a consumer’s viewing of the labels and individual components of the labels.
To do this, researchers designed a simulated grocery shopping experience on a computer and applied eye-tracking technology to precisely measure viewing habits. While eye-tracking research is still in its early stages, this study sought to build on existing research by asking specific questions related to label use (previous studies investigated the technical aspects of label structure). The two primary research questions in this study were: how does self-reported Nutrition Facts label viewing compare with viewing precisely measured via eye tracker? And how is location related to viewing of nutrition information?
Results of the study were published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Researchers found that more than 70% of participants viewed one or more Nutrition Facts label components either often or almost always. More than half also looked at each of the five label components at the top of the label – servings, calories, total fat, saturated fat and trans fat. On the other hand, few participants looked at all of the components on a single label.
Interestingly, the divide between what participants self-reported for viewing and what they actually viewed was quite wide. While 33% self-reported that they almost always look at calorie content, only 9% actually did so. Similarly, participants self-reported that they always look at trans-fat content (20%), sugar content (24%) and serving size (26%). Only 1% of participants actually looked at each of these components on almost all labels.
Another crucial discovery? The importance of label location. Labels in the center column received 30% more view time than the same labels when located in a side column. Significantly more participants viewed the components located toward the top of the Nutrition Facts labels versus those at the bottom as well.
The study shows that consumers have a limited attention span when it comes to reading Nutrition Facts labels. And since they stick to the top few lines, they may miss important nutrition information that could be stored lower on the list. For example, fat and calories may be at the top, but sodium and sugar are often toward the bottom of a Nutrition Facts label. Therefore, it may be time to restructure the labels to keep the most crucial data at the top. This was actually how the labels were designed in the first place, however, current health data – especially health concerns about sugar and sodium intake – could warrant a higher list position for certain items.
D. J. Graham, study co-author and research associate in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, believes that their findings suggest front-of-package labels are more likely to be viewed by consumers because they are more prominently displayed, can be read quickly and have fewer nutrients represented – and the Institute of Medicine agrees. Last month, the IOM’s expert panel on front-of-package nutrition labeling recommended that a single, uniform front-of-package labeling system be added to all food products.
Graham says that it is now up to FDA to decide whether they will mandate such a label or not. More research is currently underway and additional grant proposals have been submitted to extend this research. One of the next questions to answer is if eye-tracking technology translates from the computer to the “real world.” Researchers are also interested in looking at what happens when families shop together, and how social processes interact with label viewing patterns.
Graham adds, “There is research evidence that individuals who view nutrition information tend to make more healthful food selections and eat more healthful diets. There is even some evidence that this link between viewing labels and healthy eating may be true – independent of motivation to eat healthfully. Therefore, by placing nutrition information in a location where it is more likely to be seen, improvements to diet are likely to follow.”