Who reads – and doesn’t read – Nutrition Facts food labels?

U of M School of Public Health study explores frequency and use

Almost every packaged food product has a Nutrition Facts label listed on the back, giving consumers a glimpse of what they’re actually eating. It can help Americans make healthier food choices, but recent research from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health and Medical School reveals that many people check Nutrition Facts infrequently, if at all.
Only about one-third of young adults reported frequent use.

“Using Nutrition Facts can help with comparing packaged foods, but we didn’t see a high level of usage,” said Mary Christoph, Ph.D., M.P.H., lead author of the study and post-doctoral fellow in the Medical School’s Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health. “However, young adults who did read Nutrition Facts had better dietary patterns, including eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

The study was recently published in the Journal of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The omnipresent Nutrition Facts on the backside of packaged foods have changed little since the Food and Drug Administration introduced them in 1990. While some studies have found an association between using Nutrition Facts and eating more produce, little was known about how many people actually pay attention to them and how they impact dietary patterns.

“We wanted to understand which young adults used nutrition labels, what parts of the label they read, and how label use was related to food intake. These questions are important for understanding how to better support young adults in making food choices, and how to meet consumer preferences in terms of label content,” Christoph said.

In a cross-sectional population study that was part of the larger Project Eat study led by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, UMN researchers surveyed nearly 2,000 young adults aged 25-36, primarily located in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, to better understand how the labels are used.

The survey data showed people with the following demographics were more likely to read Nutrition Facts:

  • women
  • people with high education and income
  • people who regularly prepare food
  • people who are physically active
  • people classified as overweight
  • people who were trying to lose, gain or maintain weight

The research also showed adults who did read Nutrition Facts labels more frequently were most interested in sugars, calories and serving size.

“This is interesting because even though our study took place before the FDA announced the new Nutrition Facts panel in May 2016, our results broadly aligned with the new guidelines, which will highlight calories and serving sizes in a larger bold font, and break out added sugars from total sugars.

This is a good sign because it suggests the new FDA guidelines seem to fit the preferences of the young adults in our study,” Christoph said. However, she adds, there are still gaps to fill.
“Only about a third of our study sample used labels frequently when buying a food product for the first time, so there’s room for improvement,” she said.
She said researchers should continue to study nutrition label usage and how that correlates to eating choices, as well as investigating effectiveness of label design and messaging. That information, paired with the results of this study, could guide public health programming and educational efforts to encourage consumers to use Nutrition Facts.

“While older adults might be prompted to eat better due to health conditions, we need to find a way to provide support and motivation to young adults to eat well since your diet throughout life can have a major impact on long-term health,” Christoph said.
— Information abstracted from a University of Minnesota Research Brief