Online grocery stores struggle with consistent food labeling, study finds

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Experts hope this changes so that consumers are given better information about their food choices

A new study conducted by researchers from New York University explored a unique trend that’s been occurring among online grocery retailers. Their findings showed that many online stores aren’t consistent with showing consumers food labels

“Our study shows that the online food shopping environment today is a bit of a ‘Wild West,’ with incomplete and inconsistent provision of required nutrition information to consumers,” said researcher Dariush Mozaffarian.

“Online shopping will only continue to grow, and this creates an excellent opportunity to positively influence consumers to make healthy and safe choices. We need to leverage this change to help make progress against the nutrition-related health crisis in this country.” 

Gaps in nutrition labeling

To better understand what nutritional information is available to consumers from online retailers, the researchers analyzed information available from nine major online grocers on 10 different food products. Most of the items involved in the study were packaged goods, which typically are required to have an ingredients list, a full nutrition breakdown, and a common allergy warning. 

Ultimately, the researchers learned that there were a lot of inconsistencies with these food labels. Overall, nutrition facts were only found on roughly 46% of all the items assessed, while ingredient lists were found on more than 54% of the items involved in the study. 

However, on average, this information was only consistent across the different stores and food items 36.5% of the time. The researchers found that allergy warnings only appeared on just over 11% of the items involved in the study. 

“Our findings highlight the current failure of both regulations and industry practice to provide a consistent environment in which online consumers can access information that is required in conventional stores,” said researcher Sean Cash. “With the expectation that online grocery sales could top $100 billion for 2021, the requirements to provide consumers with information need to keep up with the evolving marketplace.” 

Helping consumers make smart decisions

The researchers also looked at what regulations exist when it comes to food labeling and what can be done to help consumers make the best food choices for their health and wellness. They found that the FDA, FTC, and USDA can all work to make food labeling more consistent among online grocery retailers.

This is particularly important when thinking about consumers who rely on these labels for important nutrition information, like allergy warnings or sugar or carb levels. 

“Labeling requirements are intended to protect consumers who are largely unable to protect themselves,” said researcher Jennifer Pomeranz. “This is even more salient for online where consumers cannot directly inspect products. At a minimum, the entire required nutritional information panel should be made visible and legible for consumers shopping for their groceries online.” 

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