Effectiveness of nutrition labels questioned in study
The location and design of nutrition labels on food packages — first introduced 20 years ago — has come into question based on a new University of Minnesota study that used eye-tracking technology to objectively measure whether or not consumers read the labels.
U of M researcher Dan Graham led the study. He said that the study results show room for improvement.
In the study, participants were provided product information on a computer screen and were asked to evaluate the product and decide whether or not they would purchase the product. The product information included nutrition information.
Graham and other researchers observed via the eye-tracking device what participants viewed and for how long.
“We found out that people in this task did tend to look at the nutrition facts panel more so if it was in the center of the screen than if it was on the sides,” he said. “And they tended to look more at nutrients nearer the top of the label compared to those closer to the bottom. The highest viewing was for calories and the lowest was for the vitamins and minerals.”
Graham said that when the Nutrition Facts label was presented in the center column, subjects read one or more sections of 61 percent of the labels compared with 37 percent and 34 percent 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 30-plus percent more view time than the same labels when located in a side column.
Moving labels front and center would be beneficial
Graham said the study results indicate that a change in location for the nutrition labels would be beneficial for consumers.
“Based on this study, that was just using a computer screen, if we could translate that to a package front, for instance, it seems that it would be beneficial to have the nutrition label front and center — at the top and the middle of a food package, where people tend to look most frequently,” Graham said.
“And if we could have the nutrients that are most relevant to public health in a similarly prominent place on that label, that seems like it could draw consumer attention. And, from there, perhaps we could make the leap to saying that perhaps they would eat more healthfully if they saw it.”
About the Study
In a simulated grocery shopping exercise, 203 participants observed 64 different grocery products displayed on a computer monitor. Each screen contained three 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 three 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. Participants were aware that their eye movements would be tracked, but unaware that the study focus was nutrition information.
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 five lines on a Nutrition Facts label.
Researchers found that consumers’ self-reported viewing of Nutrition Facts label components was higher than objectively measured viewing using an eye-tracking device.