PhotoLook on any food package and you'll find a Nutrition Facts label. It tells you how many calories per serving the food contains, along with various nutrient content. The label provides helpful information – but only if you read it.

Researchers writing in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association asked consumers if they read the food labels and recorded the results. Then, they watched as the participants were asked to shop for food and recorded those results. They found that the consumers didn't read the labels nearly as much as they said they did.

"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," according to investigators Dan J. Graham, PhD, and Robert W. Jeffrey, PhD, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. "These results differed from the self-reported survey responses describing typical grocery shopping and health behaviors submitted by the participants."

Does position matter?

Currently most Nutrition Facts labels are positioned peripherally, not centrally, on food packages and, as such, may be less likely than they could be to catch and hold the eye of a potential consumer, according to 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.

The top comes out on top

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.

Self-reported viewing of Nutrition Facts label components was higher than objectively measured viewing. 33 percent of participants self-reported that they almost always look at calorie content on Nutrition Facts labels, 31 percent reported that they almost always look at the total fat content, 20 percent said the same for trans-fat content, 24 percent for sugar content, and 26 percent for serving size. However, only 9 percent of participants actually looked at calorie count for almost all of the products in this study, and about one percent 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 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 more than 30% more view time than the same labels when located in a side column.

The researchers say consumers are more likely to view centrally located labels and nutrients nearer the label's top. 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, they say.

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