Online Exclusives

Tracking the Visual Impact of Nutrition Labels

By Joanna Cosgrove, Online Editor | September 6, 2012

Researchers monitor the amount of attention consumers pay to nutrition labels and offer insights on how labels can continue to evolve.

Nutrition labels are critical packaging components, not just for conveying basic caloric and dietary information, but also for alerting consumers to potential food allergens. The label as we know it today has undergone many redesigns in the 20 years since its initial introduction, and there has been much attention paid to type of content it displays and its subsequent placement on packaging. But do consumers really pay attention to labeling? That’s what researchers at the University of Minnesota (UM) set out to discover when they created a unique eye tracking study, the results of which were published in a recent issue of the journal Food Policy

In a simulated grocery shopping exercise, 203 participants observed 64 different grocery products displayed on a computer monitor. Each screen contained three elements: a Nutrition Facts label, a picture and list of ingredients, and a description of the product with price and quantity information. The three elements were presented so that one third of the participants each saw the Nutrition Facts label on the left, right, and center. Each subject was asked whether they would consider buying the product. Participants were aware that their eye movements would be tracked, but unaware that the study focus was nutrition information.
Using a computer equipped with an eye-tracking device, a team of researchers, led by Dan Graham, Ph.D., of UM’s division of Epidemiology and Community Health, observed what participants viewed and for how long. They found that most consumers viewed label components at the top more than those at the bottom. Further data suggest that the average consumer reads only the top five lines on a Nutrition Facts label. The researchers also found that consumers’ self-reported viewing of Nutrition Facts label components was higher than objectively measured viewing using an eye-tracking device.
Dr. Graham said that the study results showed room for improvement as it related to a label’s orientation on packaging, and also the content it displays. “We found out that people in this task did tend to look at the nutrition facts panel more so if it was in the center of the screen than if it was on the sides,” he said. “And they tended to look more at nutrients nearer the top of the label compared to those closer to the bottom. The highest viewing was for calories and the lowest was for the vitamins and minerals.”
What’s more, Dr. Graham reported that 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. In addition, labels in the center column received 30+% more view time than the same labels when located in a side column.
In keeping with their observations, Dr. Graham said there were clear indications that a change in location for the nutrition labels would be beneficial for consumers. “Based on this study, that was just using a computer screen, if we could translate that to a package front, for instance, it seems that it would be beneficial to have the nutrition label front and center — at the top and the middle of a food package, where people tend to look most frequently,” he said. “And if we could have the nutrients that are most relevant to public health in a similarly prominent place on that label, that seems like it could draw consumer attention. And, from there, perhaps we could make the leap to saying that perhaps they would eat more healthfully if they saw it.”
To purchase a copy of the complete study, click this link.

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