Fewer U.S. consumers are looking at the nutrition label
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently unveiled changes to the Nutrition Facts label, but according to The NPD Group, the announcement comes at a time when the percent of U.S. consumers who actually read the Nutrition Facts label is declining.
This document was written in 2016, therefore, all information obtained may have been updated.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is an agency of the United States that is responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation. The FDA’s authority extends throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, the District of Colombia, the Virgin Islands and other U.S territories. (What we do)
In 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was passed which required all packaged foods products to identify nutritional and physical contents contained in the package by introducing a ‘panel of information’ on the product. This ‘panel of information’ is the nutrition facts label.
The nutrition facts label is a label required on packaged food and displays the number of calories, nutrients and servings in a packaged food product. This information is important to the consumer to know what specifically is in the food product and how much of the product to consume. The label itself is divided into sections, each of which is devoted to giving specific information.
The NPD Group is a market research company that operates in twenty countries which include The United States of America, Europe and Asia. They provide retail tracking, consumer tracking and shopper insights, distributor tracking, category management, opportunity identification, marketing evaluation and testing, price evaluation, consumer and shopper behaviour, and custom research services; and in-home product purchase scanning, bar-coded surveys, Website intercept sampling, computer-based meters, and receipt harvesting services to their clients. The company not only deals with food and food service but they offer services to other retail industries. (The NPD Group, Inc.: Private company information — Businessweek)
In 2014, the NPD group published results of tests done up to 2013 showing that the percentage of persons who read labels have been gradually decreasing since labels have been made mandatory in 1990.
The NPD Study
The NPD Group, through the National Eating Trends Service, asked 1,000 consumers if they frequently checked nutrition labels to see if the foods they bought contained anything they were trying to avoid. (U.S. consumers’ interest in reading nutrition facts labels wanes as time goes on) This question was asked every year from since the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act was passed in 1990. In 1990, 65% of consumers agreed with the statement. That percentage decreased to 60% in 1994 and rose again to approximately 64% in 1995 after the nutrition facts labels were placed on food packaging. Since then, the average percentage of consumers in agreement ranged from 61% to a low of 48% in 2013.
The NPD group used these results and postulated that fewer consumers read the nutrition facts label because the format of the label was not updated since its inception.
A critique of the NPD Study
The NPD study is scientifically flawed because
- 1000 is not a sufficient sample size for the population of the United States.
- There is no indication that the 1000 persons chosen represented the full range of cultures, localities, socio-economic and academic groups as in the general of the population.
- The question itself does not distinguish between checking the label of new products vs checking the label of products regularly purchased. It is reasonable to assume that persons will not check the labels of products they already know and regularly purchased.
- The NPD study had no way of testing to see if the respondents were honest. A hidden camera or discreet observers should have been used to see if the people who said they checked labels really checked the labels.
A more scientific version of that test was done by the University of Minnesota in Spring 2010. (Why people Don’t read nutrition labels | TIME.com). In a simulated grocery shopping exercise, 203 participants observed 64 different grocery products displayed on a computer monitor. Each screen contained three elements, the 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 centre. 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.
Self-reported viewing of nutrition facts label components was higher than objectively measured viewing. 33% of participants self-reported that they almost always look at calorie content on Nutrition Facts labels, 31% reported 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 centre 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 centre column received more than 30% more view time than the same labels when located in a side column.
The data showed that consumers usually limited their attention to the top five lines of the labels and considered the ones that were centrally located the most. Most nutrition facts labels on food packages are positioned peripherally, not centrally, and so may not be optimized for grabbing consumers’ attention.
The FDA is addressing the issue of labels not being read for that reason. On May the 20th 2016, the FDA finalized the new design of the nutrition facts label after 20 years to appeal to consumers who are not familiar or do not understand the text on the label.
The most noticeable new change is the addition of the ‘added sugars’ text. Manufacturing companies must state the amount of sugar that was included during the processing of the food product to separate the amount of natural sugar that is initially found in the food product.
The calorie count on the label has been updated with bigger font size as well as the serving size. Both of these texts are also placed in bold.
There are new nutrients as well which include vitamin D and potassium and vitamin A and vitamin C will be dropped from the label. Those vitamins were removed because the FDA stated ‘In the early 1990s, American diets lacked Vitamins A and C, but now Vitamins A and C deficiencies in the general population are rare’ but manufacturing companies are given the option to include it voluntarily.
There is also a small change to the footnote to explain the per cent daily value better which will now read “The % Daily Value tells you how much a nutrient in a serving of food contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories are used for general nutrition advice.”
Food manufacturers will be required to use the new label by July 26th 2018 and food manufacturers who make less than $10 million US dollars in annual food sales have until 2019 to comply with the change. (FDA modernizes nutrition facts label for packaged foods).
The NPD’s study was not scientific and therefore its conclusion can be challenged. A more scientific test on the same subject matter, as done by the University of Minnesota, should be used to get useful information on consumer behaviour as pertains to nutrition facts labelling.
Graham, D. J., & Jeffery, R. W. (2011). Location, location, location: Eye-tracking evidence that consumers preferentially view prominently positioned nutrition information Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(11), 1704–1711.
The NPD Group, Inc.: Private company information — Businessweek Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/research/stocks/private/snapshot.asp?privcapId=1051427
Nutrition-food-label-merge-v04.jpg (620×598) Retrieved from http://cbsnews2.cbsistatic.com/hub/i/2014/02/27/0490c85e-e2c6-47fb-b0a9-98cd64eab744/bf97f136263a29598f54ae57b823b613/nutrition-food-label-merge-v04.jpg
FDA modernizes nutrition facts label for packaged foods Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm502182.htm
Study: Why People Don’t read nutrition labels | TIME.com Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2011/10/24/study-why-people-dont-read-nutrition-labels/
U.S. consumers’ interest in reading nutrition facts labels wanes as time goes on, reports NPD Retrieved from https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/u-s-consumers-interest-in-reading-nutrition-facts-labels-wanes-as-time-goes-on-reports-npd/
Understanding food nutrition labels Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/HeartSmartShopping/Reading-Food-Nutrition-Labels_UCM_300132_Article.jsp#.V3-0IbgrLIU
What we do Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/WhatWeDo/