Study: Why People Don’t Read Nutrition Labels

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How often do you look at the Nutrition Facts label on the side of the box? A new study reveals that people say they look at it a lot more than they actually do.

For the study, University of Minnesota researchers recruited 203 participants to gauge what kind of information people looked at before deciding to buy a food product. The task involved a computer-based grocery shopping exercise in which the volunteers were shown 64 items — typical products like cereal, crackers, soup, cookies, ice cream — and asked to indicate whether or not they would buy it.

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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.

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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.

Surprisingly, while only 26% of people self-reported that they almost always look at Nutrition Facts labels at the grocery store, 37% of them actually looked at at least one component of the label for almost all food items. The researchers suggest that the discrepancy was most likely related to the fact that real-world Nutrition Facts labels appear on the side of the box.

“In the simulated shopping setting, participants could see Nutrition Facts labels without having to turn, rotate, or otherwise manipulate a food package. In contrast, Nutrition Facts labels on food packages tend to be in locations that cannot be seen by consumers looking at the front of a package (e.g., when viewing a shelf of items in a grocery store),” the authors wrote.

Indeed, the study volunteers’ attention also varied depending on where the nutrition information appeared on the computer screen: people were most likely to peruse the label if it appeared in the middle column, rather than on one side or the other.

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What’s more, people were much more likely to view the information at the top of the Nutrition Facts panel (calories and fat, for instance) than the components at the bottom (vitamins and minerals). Almost no one looked at every line.

The findings add to the evidence that the bewildering array of food labels currently found on grocery store foods isn’t doing consumers any good. Creating the most eye-popping nutrition labels is important for helping harried consumers make healthy buying decisions at the store, and the new study suggests: a) putting the most crucial data up at the top and b) putting the label front and center on the box.

Everyone from First Lady Michelle Obama to the Institute of Medicine to the Grocery Manufacturers Association is on board with the call for clearer labeling. The question is, what will the Food and Drug Administration decide to do about it?

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.