Companies that print food labels work hard to make sure that the information on them is correct. It’s a matter of professional pride and, very often, also one of complying with the law. But, out there in the consumer marketplace, who cares?
Not everybody. Research into how thoroughly people read food labels—if they read them at all—indicates that shoppers’ attention spans for food labels are limited in stores, in restaurants, and at home.
In 2008, a 17,300-person study by the European Food Information Council found that on average, only 18% of Europeans regularly looked for nutritional information on food packaging in the store. This was the case despite the fact that people recognized labeling schemes and generally knew how to use them to make informed nutrition choices.
Label inspection by consumers has improved over time, but unevenly. In 2011, researchers for the University of Minnesota tested 203 people in a computerized shopping simulation that included tracking the subjects’ eye movements as they looked at images of food products and their nutrition facts labels. Only 9% were found to have looked at calorie counts for most of the items they were shown. Just 1% paid attention to details about fat, sugar, and other components for almost all of the products in the simulation. (The study did find that 70% of the participants looked at least one piece of nutritional information on the label at least part of the time.)
Indisputable facts about what people are reading on food labels and how they are reacting to it don’t exist. For example, this 2013 infographic from Food Business News contrasts nutritional awareness generated by information on restaurant menus vs. awareness driven by labels on food packages. The latter come out ahead, but perhaps restaurants are leading in a different way. Some authorities say that the less frequently people report checking nutritional information, the better the news actually is: it means that they’ve become familiar with it and don’t need to refresh their memories as often.
In a few cases, it may be wise to avoid looking at labels altogether—or at least to avoid looking at them with anything but a cynical eye. A study published this year by the American Marketing Association declares that labeling certain foods as “healthy” can cause people to overindulge in them. According to these researchers, some may make the error of assuming that when they eat a bag of “healthy” trail mix (for example), the snack doesn’t count as caloric intake that has to be paid for with exercise.
But, it also would be a mistake to conclude that because people can be confused by food labels, food labeling has no value for them. A 2012 study for the journal Agricultural Economics determined that women who paid attention to food labels had a lower average body mass index (BMI) than women who ignored them. On the bathroom scale, that worked out to a difference of about eight pounds. (Label-reading men, however, didn’t show a corresponding decrease in BMI.)
More nutritional labeling will be on the way as public health authorities step up their educational campaigns to combat the epidemic of obesity and its related ills. How-to assistance for label reading is readily available to the public in the form of guides like this one from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Needless to say, the label printing industry will do its part in the way it always has—with labels that are impeccably legible and readable whether anyone is looking at them or not.