Nutritional labels nobody reads to get even more costly

The Obama administration is considering new rules governing what food manufacturers must put on their labels to inform consumers about the ingredients used. Some suggestions from labeling advocates include making the number of calories larger, along with fat and sugar content.

The problem, is that an infintesimally small percentage of shoppers actually read the labels.This study, published in Time back in 2011, shows us that about a third of people will tell researchers that they read what's in the food they buy, but their eyes betray their true interest:

For each item, the screen was divided into three columns: one column contained an image of the food, with a list of ingredients; another section contained the food's price and description; and the third showed the item's Nutrition Facts label. The shopping program was synced with an eye-tracking device that monitored what the shoppers' viewed, tracking 1,000 eye movements per second. After the buying task, the participants were also asked to fill out a questionnaire about their usual grocery shopping and health-related behaviors.

Researchers found a big difference between what the eye tracker said people looked at and what the participants self-reported they typically looked at while shopping. Thirty-three percent of participants said they "almost always" looked at a product's calorie content on the Nutrition Facts label; 31% said they almost always looked at total fat content (20% said they looked at trans fats); 24% said they studied products' sugar content and 26% said they paid close attention to serving size.

What the eye-tracking data showed: only 9% looked at calorie count for almost all the items in the experiment; 1% looked at each of the other components, including fat, trans fat, sugar and serving size, for almost all of the products.

O.K., so they didn't look at nutrition labels as much as they claimed, but more than 70% of the participants viewed at least one component of the average Nutrition Facts label at least some of the time. And more than half viewed each of five label components (servings, calories, total fat, saturated fat and trans fat) on the average label.

The changes being proposed by the Obama administration would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars to implement.



Food industry groups and health advocates have not yet been briefed about what, exactly, will be in the proposals, but the changes are expected to spark significant pushback from the industry.

"I haven't seen the proposal, so I don't know what's in it," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "I would hope that calories will be bolder, considering our obesity problem."

Food policy experts are guessing that the changes will result in calories being displayed more prominently and serving sizes more in line with what American consumers are actually eating.

Other changes, which could be unveiled with multiple format options, might include dropping and adding certain nutrients from the list of vitamins and minerals with daily value percentages, dropping the requirement to list "calories from fat" or adding whole wheat percentages. Most experts expect the FDA will require more accurate serving sizes, as the current labels are based on decades old data on consumer consumption.

"A lot of foods that common sense dictates are a single serving size, like certain snacks and beverages, are listed as multiple servings," explains Wootan. She wants to see those packages labeled as one serving "so people know what they're getting."

For example, a typical bag of peanut butter M&M's is currently listed as two servings, at 210 calories and 13 grams of fat each. If updated data shows that most consumers wolf down the whole package of candies, they might have to be labeled as one serving with 420 calories and 26 grams of fat.

Over the years, FDA has also hinted that it might require food manufacturers declare "added sugars" on food packages, instead of just listing "sugars" which is already required. Health advocates argue that many consumers don't realize sugar is added to an estimated 75 percent of processed foods and a label might help curb stealth sugar consumption.

But making such a change would likely be picking a big fight with the food industry, which argues that there's no way to distinguish between added sugars and natural sugars in the lab tests they use to validate their labels.

It's not that these changes wouldn't more adequately reflect reality. They would. The problem is getting people to read the darn things in the first place. It may make food labeling advocates feel good about themselves if they're able to pile on costly new regs for the industry. But perhaps before that happens, we should be asking how much good it will actually do when people don't even bother to read what we're already forcing manufacturers to publish.

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