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How much do consumers use (and understand) nutrition labels?

By Maggie Hennessy , 03-Mar-2014
Last updated the 04-Mar-2014 at 15:52 GMT

“There were originally two options put forward, the main proposal, which we saw behind Mrs. Obama at the launch, and one with a clear difference between ‘get more’ and ‘get less’ nutrients. That alternate option just keeps getting lost," said WGC/Oldways' Cynthia Harriman.
“There were originally two options put forward, the main proposal, which we saw behind Mrs. Obama at the launch, and one with a clear difference between ‘get more’ and ‘get less’ nutrients. That alternate option just keeps getting lost," said WGC/Oldways' Cynthia Harriman.

On the heels of the US Food and Drug Administration’s proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts label—which received largely positive marks from the food and beverage industry—new research from the NPD Group is questioning how many US consumers even routinely check nutrition labels anymore. And Whole Grains Council/Oldways' Cynthia Harriman digs through the federal register to unearth the FDA’s more controversial “alternate proposal,” which would facilitate a better understanding of nutrients to get more and less of. 

Through its National Eating Trends service, which has monitored daily eating and drinking habits of US consumers for the past 30 years, NPD asks consumers their level of agreement with the statement, “I frequently check labels to determine whether the foods I buy contain anything I’m trying to avoid.”  After the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was passed in 1990, 65% of consumers said they completely or mostly agree with the statement. That percentage remained steady throughout the early 1990s, at 64% in 1995 after the labels began appearing on food packaging. Since then, the percentage of consumers in agreement has varied, though it reached a low of 48% in 2013.

Dip in label use means that it’s working … and that consumers are creatures of habit

NPD chief industry analyst Harry Balzer attributes this in large part to the success of the nutrition labels in educating Americans about what’s in their food, especially because we tend to be creatures of habit.

“After all, how many times do you need to look at the Nutrition Facts label on your favorite cereal, or your favorite juice, and any other food you routinely consume?” he said.

But WGC’s director of nutrition strategies Cynthia Harriman told FoodNavigator-USA that even though it’s dropped, the figure is still quite impressive. “If there was a new drug that worked in half the people it was tested on you’d say, ‘Wow, that’s a great drug!’” she said.

The dip in frequency of label use also could indicate that the timing is right for an update, which will encourage consumers to revisit labels. It also gives the federal government a chance to clarify some mixed nutrition messages, Harriman added.

“Often consumers throw up their hands and say labels are too confusing because they’re getting different messages from different parts of the government. A serving of dry pasta is one ounce according to MyPlate, and two ounces on the nutrition label. A lot of labels will change servings to make them larger, creating discrepancies between MyPlate and the real world,” she said. “Looking at the timing of the FDA working through the new nutrition labels as the new federal dietary guidelines are also being worked on gives the government an opportunity to harmonize serving sizes and its overall message.”

The buried alternate proposal breaks down macronutrients, what to avoid and what to get more of

In particular, one area that could benefit from more clarity is helping consumers determine what they need more and less of in their diets, Harriman noted. She pointed to a second proposed nutrition label floated by the FDA that breaks down quick facts on macronutrients (total fat, carbs, etc.), then nutrients to avoid (saturated fat, sodium, added sugar, etc), and nutrients to get enough of (calcium, fiber, vitamin D, etc.). Dubbed the “alternate format,” it is buried on page 276 of the FDA’s 367-page federal register document .

“One of the issues with the old label was it didn’t distinguish between nutrients we need more of and nutrients we should limit,” Harriman said. There were originally two options put forward, the main proposal, which we saw behind Mrs. Obama at the launch, and one with a clear difference between ‘get more’ and ‘get less’ nutrients. That alternate option just keeps getting lost. It is a little more radical than the other, so if they had trotted it out, it would have gotten even more pushback.”

Still, the White House invited comment on both concepts—“and they’re going to get mine!” Harriman added.

More frequent updates would revitalize consumer interest

According to NPD’s Dieting Monitor, which examines top-of-mind dieting and nutrition-related issues facing consumers, the top five items consumers who read the label look for are, in consecutive order, calories, total fat, sugar, sodium, and calories from fat. So in order to stay relevant, Balzer noted, labels may need updates more often than once every 20 years.

“It’s a safe bet that Americans now want more information, but be careful, there are always new issues that come up every few years,”  he said. “If the Nutrition Facts label is to continue to educate, it should allow for changes more often than once every 20 years. For example, gluten, probiotics, and omega-3 were not on the radar screen 20 years ago.” 

And yet, last week’s announcement took many in the industry by surprise, as many didn’t expect the FDA’s proposal to come until 2016—which could be a positive omen for the agency, Harriman noted.

“Many people thought the changes to the Nutrition Facts panel wouldn’t come until the end of this administration, but a lot positive things have come out of the FDA lately, like the recent ban on trans fat. They’re getting stuff out the other end of the pipeline more quickly. And it’s good stuff.”