Health beat: Do you read food labels - or just look?

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 27, 2011 - 5:12 PM

Most grocery shoppers look at nutrition labels while buying groceries, but a new University of Minnesota study finds they don't read nearly as carefully as they say they do.

The solution might be simpler nutrition labels, the authors say.

The project was prompted by earlier studies showing that people say they want healthier food choices but often don't choose them, said researcher Daniel Graham at the university's School of Public Health. He and colleague Robert Jeffrey, both Ph.D. researchers, wanted to see if there was a similar disconnect in reading labels.

Using computer screens and eye-tracking devices, they had 203 participants, most of them primary shoppers for their families, look at 64 grocery products.

While 33 percent said they almost always look at calorie content on the labels, only 9 percent actually did, according to the eye-tracking devices.

For fat content, the results were even worse: 31 percent said they read fat information but only 1 percent actually looked at it.

The findings "suggest that consumers have a finite attention span for nutrition facts labels," the authors reported in the November issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Their study also found that most people typically read only the first five lines of a label, but did much better when the information was placed in the center of a label instead of the side.

Validating those findings, an Institute of Medicine panel last week recommended to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that new labels be added to the front of food packages listing five elements: calories, serving size, fat, sodium and sugar.

Graham and Jeffrey want to move their test subjects from the computer to the grocery store to see if their findings hold up.

They also plan to use eye-tracking glasses to find out what happens when parents and children shop together -- what they look at and what they say about nutrition and food choices.

wolfe@startribune.com • 612-673-7253

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