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Confused By Food Labels?

Do you pay as much attention to nutrition fact labels as you think?

Nutrition labels have been used by many of us for decades to help us choose processed and unprocessed food products. The question is do you read these labels in detail when you make a purchase? Most people read only certain portions of the label? 

According to a new study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, our own opinion of how well we view Nutrition labels was higher than accurately measured using an eye-tracking device. The study also demonstrated that centrally located Nutrition Facts labels are viewed more often and for longer than those located near the edge of a product. 

Currently most Nutrition labels are positioned near the edge of a packet, not in the middle where it is easier to see.

In a simulated shopping exercise using a computer, 64 different grocery products were displayed. Each screen included three parts, the Nutrition label, a picture and list of ingredients with a description of the product including price and quantity information. 

The different elements were presented so that a third of the participants saw the Nutrition label on the left, right, and in the centre. Each person was asked whether they would consider buying the product. The people in the study were aware their eye movements would be tracked, however they didn't realise the study focus was on nutrition information.
The eye-tracking device attached to the computer demonstrated that most of us view label components at the top more than those at the bottom and that we only read the top five lines on a Nutrition label. 

We also have a much greater opinion of ourselves. When asked about how well they viewed Nutrition labels, it was much higher than the true result. About a third of the participants reported they almost always look at calorie content on Nutrition Facts labels, 31% reported that they almost always look at the total fat content, 20% said the same for trans-fat content, 24% for sugar content. However, only 9% of people actually looked at the calorie count for almost all of the products, and less than 1% of people checked the total fat, trans fat, and sugar or serving size on almost all the labels. 

When the Nutrition Facts label was presented in the center column, subjects read one or more sections of 61% of the labels compared with 37% and 34% of labels among participants randomly assigned to view labels on the left- and right hand sides of the screen, respectively. Labels in the center column received more than 30% more view time than the same labels when located in a side column. 

At the moment there is alot of debate about using a traffic light system to help us make a decision about choosing a healthy food. The problem is that it can exclude some healthy foods. An example are nuts and dried fruit. Both of these foods are relatively high in calories. They may be eliminated despite having a number of health benefits. It's food for thought.
26 Oct 2011

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