The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Consumer Use of Food Labels, Part II

Consumer Use of Food Labels, Part II

Shoppers and Trends

September 28, 2008

In July, we talked about the need to improve nutrition labels as communication tools for consumers. Now, new research from the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) confirms that consumer use of nutrition labels is on the decline.
The study, which looked at label use from the years 1996 to 2005, found that consumer use decreased for most label components. Use declined by approximately three percentage points for the Nutrition Facts panel, 11 percentage points for the ingredient list, and 10 percentage points for information on calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium.
The only component that rose in use was fiber, by two percentage points. The interest in fiber was seen most frequently in consumers aged 30 and older. Other populations leaned toward declined use of labels overall. The decrease was largest for individuals aged 20 to 29, those with no education beyond high school, and among those speaking primarily Spanish.
Jessica Todd, agricultural economist for ERS, says that there are many possible reasons for the decline in use. Standardized nutrition labels first appeared on packaged and processed foods in 1994, just as the internet was taking off. Today, consumers have access to many other (online) sources of nutritional information.
In addition, as more consumers have increased their consumption of food outside the house, they may have had less frequent interaction with nutrition labels in stores. Also, the educational and informational campaigns associated with standardized labels, introduced when they first came out, are long gone.
“Adults under age 30 would probably not have been targeted by these campaigns. And the novelty may have worn off for those adults that were targeted,” Todd says. “The FDA is currently considering ways to increase the shopper’s awareness and use of labels.”
Differences in decline among age groups and ethnicities, for example, suggest that fine-tuning informational campaigns to certain populations might be a temporary solution. FDA programs like “Spot the Block,” aimed at educating teens about the Nutrition Facts panel, may be just what the doctor ordered.
Other promising solutions include front of package nutrition labels, which some countries are considering, colored “traffic-lights,” which communicate information about calories, fat and sodium to consumers, and grocery-placed nutritional information or rankings on store shelves.
However, even English-speaking consumers – with a high school education and beyond – have difficulty using labels correctly. Some evidence from other studies reveals that other populations, like the elderly, may find the current label format confusing too. At the same time, consumers are increasingly looking for other product information, such as organic certification and country of origin, at the possible expense of nutrition labels.
“We need to do more research to better understand where priorities lie. There’s a lot of competing information out there,” says Todd.
Still, the slight increase in the use of fiber information is promising. Todd attributes the rise in interest on fiber to an increasing awareness of fiber’s health benefits, and the increasing popularity of diets that include whole grain foods.
“Consumer responsiveness to information linking diet, fiber and health,” says Todd, “indicates that clear, consistent messages about the link between nutrients and health outcomes encourage consumers to seek out nutrition information.”
The industry continues to search for easy, effective ways to convey nutritional information, especially as overall diet quality in the U.S. continues to be less than ideal. MyFoodPhone, which first launched in May 2006 on Sprint, is one such system. The WebDiet smartphone-based service, rolling out later this year, is another. Even Weight Watchers is launching a mobile service.
Todd says other innovative means of communicating nutritional facts may be on the way as well.
“We’ve seen how much technology has already changed how we eat and shop. It makes sense that it will have an impact on how we share nutritional information,” she adds. “We can expect to see more innovative ways of providing nutrition information to the consumers by the industry.”