With all of the controversy currently surrounding new front-of-package nutrition labeling systems, a new study that sheds light on how consumers use the long-existing Nutrition Facts label would seem to have timely relevance.
University of Minnesota researchers used eye-tracking devices as 203 consumers viewed screens showing three elements for 63 different food products: the Nutrition Facts label; a picture and list of ingredients; and a description of the product with price/quantity information. The elements were presented so that one-third of the subjects saw the nutrition label on the right, one-third on the left, and one-third in the center of the screen. Subjects knew that their eye movements were being tracked, but didn’t know that the simulated shopping study was focused on the nutrition information.
After viewing the screens, they were asked to indicate if they would considering buying the products presented. They were also asked to self-report on what information they typically check when food shopping.
Key finding #1: People don’t check the specific components in the NF label as often as they think they do.
The good news was that while only 26% of participants self-reported that they “almost always” look at NF labels, 37% of them actually viewed at least one nutrition component on the label for nearly all food items presented. (The researchers said that this likely reflects NF labels’ positioning on the sides/backs of real packages, whereas the labels were more visible on the test screens – see #2 below.)
Other positive news: More than 70% of the participants looked at at least one component of the NF label at least some of the time, and more than half viewed each of five label components (servings, calories, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat) on the average label.
However, discrepancies emerged in self-reported versus actual viewing of specific components. One-third of participants said that they “almost always” look at calorie counts, 31% at total fat content, 26% at serving size, 24% at sugar content and 20% at trans-fat content. But the eye-scans showed only 9% actually looking at calorie counts for nearly all products presented, and only about 1% looking at the total fat, trans fat, sugar and serving size information on nearly all labels.
Key finding #2: The label’s positioning affected viewing patterns.
Participants read 61% of the label when it was in center screen, versus reading 37% and 34% of the labels when they were on the left-hand and right-hand sides of the screen, respectively. Further, they looked at center-positioned labels 30% longer than labels positioned to the right or left on the screen.
Key finding #3: Most participants viewed components at the top of the label more than those at the bottom, with the focus usually on the top five lines.
The implications? The researchers concluded that “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."
The study, “Location, Location, Location: Eye-Tracking Evidence that Consumers Preferentially View Prominently Positioned Nutrition Information," appears in the November issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.