Following the FDA’s first proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts panel in more than 20 years (read about them here), two GICR researchers sought to investigate how helpful current and proposed nutrition labels are to consumers, examining in particular how effective labels are when read quickly and whether the increased emphasis on serving size and calories makes them appear more accurate.
For the March 2014 study, 830 consumers were each presented with a 20 oz. bottle of soda, a frozen pizza, and an 8 oz. bag of chips, followed by a picture of each product’s nutritional facts label. Consumers were randomly assigned to view the current label, the proposed label or an alternate proposed label. Each label also contained nutritional information for the existing serving size values or for 1.5 times the existing serving size (to reflect the proposed FDA serving size adjustments). Lastly, nutritional label information was presented for either 10 seconds, to mimic an in-store viewing, or for an unlimited amount of time. Consumers then indicated how healthy they perceived each item to be and how informative or helpful they found the labels.
The most surprising finding was the relationship between viewing time and what label consumers found most helpful, the researchers told FoodNavigator-USA.
“Consumers found that the current nutrition labels were less helpful than the proposed labels when only given a brief, 10-second timeframe to evaluate the labels. However, when given an unlimited time to view the labels, consumers found the current labels more helpful than the proposed labels,” authors Christopher Hydock and Anne Wilson said in an email. “This suggests that the current labels can be helpful to consumers, but only when given ample time to analyze the information presented, while the proposed labels are more helpful when viewed quickly, paralleling the amount of time that would be realistically spent glancing at labels while shopping.”
Indeed, as part of the study, the researchers investigated the average amount of time a person would spend looking at a label while shopping in a store, finding the median time to be around 10 seconds. Thus, they noted, the findings “may be demonstrative of the FDA’s goals in making more important information bolder and clearer, and therefore easier to find and decipher when only given a brief time to read.” (They didn’t ask any questions about how often consumers use nutrition labels, however.)
Among the most notable labeling updates, the FDA proposed adjusting serving sizes in an effort to ameliorate confusion over recommended serving sizes vs. the amount of food consumers usually eat. For instance, the majority of consumers eat more than the 12 chips or drink more than 8 ounces of soda in one sitting, even though these are listed as a single serving size.
This was reflected in the GICR results, in which consumers viewed the proposed, larger serving sizes to be more accurate than the current sizes. They also found increased serving sizes led consumers to perceive unhealthy foods as more unhealthy than current serving sizes. “These findings suggest that the intended goals with the new labels may be achieved with the new labels.”