Study: Consumers Don't Pay Close Attention to Nutrition Labels

Kate H. Gamble, Senior Editor
Published Online: Thursday, November 17, 2011
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When it comes to examining food and drink labels, many individuals aren’t as thorough as they might think.

According to a study published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, consumers’ self-reported viewing of nutrition facts label components was higher than objectively measured viewing using an eye-tracking device. Researchers also found that centrally located Nutrition Facts labels are viewed more frequently and for longer than those located peripherally.

"The results of this study suggest that consumers have a finite attention span for Nutrition Facts labels. Although most consumers did view labels, very few consumers viewed every component on any label,” noted study authors Dan J. Graham, PhD, and Robert W. Jeffrey, PhD, of the University of Minnesota.

In the study, 203 participants observed 64 different grocery products displayed on a computer monitor. Each screen contained 3 elements: the well-known Nutrition Facts label, a picture and list of ingredients, and a description of the product with price and quantity information. These 3 elements were presented so that one third of the participants each saw the Nutrition Facts label on the left, right, and center. Each subject was asked whether they would consider buying the product.
Using a computer equipped with an eye-tracking device, investigators observed that most consumers view label components at the top more than those at the bottom. Further data suggest that the average consumer reads only the top 5 lines on a Nutrition Facts label.

They determined that self-reported viewing of Nutrition Facts label components was higher than objectively measured viewing. Thirty-three percent of participants reported that they almost always look at calorie content on Nutrition Facts labels, 31% said that they almost always look at the total fat content, 20% said the same for trans-fat content, 24% for sugar content, and 26% for serving size. However, only 9% of participants actually looked at calorie count for almost all of the products in this study, and about 1% of participants looked at each of these other components (total fat, trans fat, sugar, and serving size) on almost all labels.

When the Nutrition Facts label was presented in the center column, subjects read one or more sections of 61% of the labels compared with 37% and 34% of labels among participants randomly assigned to view labels on the left- and right hand sides of the screen, respectively. In addition, labels in the center column received more than 30% more view time than the same labels when located in a side column.

“Consumers are more likely to view centrally located labels and nutrients nearer the label’s top,” the authors wrote. “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.”

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