Nutrition facts labels often ignored: What's the fix?

close up of a nutritional label centered on fat content
iStockphoto
close up of a nutritional label centered on fat content
iStockphoto

(CBS) Are shoppers paying attention to nutrition facts labels?

PICTURES: Nutrition Facts a flub? Designers rethink food label

A new study suggests that most of us seem to lack the attention span to read the labels, even though we say we read them while shopping. Its authors are calling for the labels to be given more prominent placement on food containers.

For the study - published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association - researchers put 203 people to the test by having them look at 64 grocery items on a computer monitor. Each screen had the nutrition label, a picture with a list of ingredients, and a description of the product's price - and was equipped with an eye-tracking device to see what people were really looking at. Participants also filled out a questionnaire on what labels they saw.

The questionnaires showed that 33 percent of participants "almost always" look at calorie content on nutrition  labels," while 31 percent said the same for total fat, 20 percent for trans-fat, 24 percent sugar, and 26 percent looked at serving size.

What did the eye-tracker have to say? "Yea, right."

It showed that only 9 percent of participants looked at calorie counts for almost all of the products, and about 1 percent looked at all those other nutritional components on all products.

"The results of this study suggest that consumers have a finite attention span for nutrition facts labels," study authors Dr. Dan J. Graham and Dr. Robert W. Jeffrey, epidemiologists at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, said in a written statement. "Although most consumers did view labels, very few consumers viewed every component on any label."

Is all that nutrition info just wasted ink? The researchers said the problem lies with the positioning of the labels. They switched up the label placement throughout the study, and when labels were front and center, more than 60 percent of participants read at least one section of the label, compared with less than 40 percent who read a section of labels located on the left or right sides of the monitor.

"Location of labels and of specific label components relate to viewing," the authors said in the statement. "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."

Last week, a panel from the Institute of Medicine recommended a new labeling system for food packaging, that features a star rating system where shoppers can check what's healthy at-a-glance, CBS News reported.