A new investigation published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reveals that consumers do not pay as much attention to nutrition facts labels as they believe. Researchers used an eye-tracking device to objectively measure how much consumers pay attention to these labels. They discovered that consumers believed they were paying more attention to the labels than what the eye tracking device actually measured. Furthermore, they found that Nutrition Facts labels that are centrally located are view more frequently and longer than labels located peripherally.

Dan J. Graham, PhD, and Robert W. Jeffrey, PhD, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, explained:

“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. These results differed from the self-reported survey responses describing typical grocery shopping and health behaviors submitted by the participants.”

At present, the majority of U.S. Nutrition Facts labels on food packages are positioned peripherally, not centrally, and according to the study this type of positioning may not catch the consumers eye.

The researchers enrolled 203 individuals to participate in a simulated grocery shopping exercise that displayed 64 different products on a computer monitor. Three elements were displayed for each product the picture of the item, the Nutrition Facts, and the list of ingredients together with a description of the product, the price and quantity. The three elements were displayed so that one third of individuals each saw the Nutrition Facts label on the right, center, or left. Although the participants were aware that their eye movements would be tracked, they were unaware that the investigation focus was on nutrition information. All participants were asked if they would consider buying the product.

They discovered that the majority of the participants view label components at the top more than those at the bottom. Additional data indicates that the average individual only reads the top five lines on a Nutrition Facts label.

Self-reported viewing of Nutrition Facts label components was higher than what the eye tracking device actually measured:

  • 33% of participants self-reported that they nearly always look at calorie content.
  • 24% of participants reported that they almost always look at sugar content.
  • 31% reported that they almost always look at the total fat content.
  • 20% said they looked at trans-fat content.
  • And 26% of participants reported that they almost always looked at serving size.

The researchers discovered that only 9% of participants looked at calorie count for almost all of the products in the investigation, and approximately 1% looked at sugar, total fat, trans fat, and serving size on almost all labels.

61% of participants read one or more sections of the Nutrition Facts label when it was positioned centrally in comparison to 37% who viewed the label on the left and 34% of participants who viewed the label on the right. In addition they found that labels in the center column received over 30% more view time compared to when labels were positioned left or right.

They explain:

“Taken together, these results indicate that self-reported Nutrition Facts label use does not accurately represent in vivo use of labels and their components while engaging in a simulated shopping exercise. In addition, location of labels and of specific label components relate to viewing. Consumers are more likely to view centrally located labels and nutrients nearer the label’s top. Because knowing the amounts of key nutrients that food contain can influence consumers to make healthier purchases, prominently positioning key nutrients, and labels themselves, could substantially impact public health.”

In an associated video Dr. Graham narrates a presentation of his discoveries. The video is available here.

Written by Grace Rattue