Only about a third of young adults frequently read the Nutrition Facts label, according to a new study from the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health and Medical School and reported by Supermarket News. The study was published this month in the Journal of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Researchers found that of the 1,817 people aged 25 to 36 surveyed mainly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, those most likely to check the labels were female, had higher education and income, regularly prepare food, were physically active or would be considered overweight.
Those label elements checked the most were sugars (74.1%), total calories (72.9%), serving size (67.9%) and the ingredient list (65.8%), the study found.
These findings come out just as some government agencies and consumer groups are pushing to make nutrition labeling easier and more compelling. Two-thirds of shoppers say they find package labeling difficult to understand, according to information from Label Insight, while half say they don't feel enlightened when they read product labels.
Some experts claim that putting all the information consumers say they want on product labels would make them impossibly cluttered. That's one reason why manufacturers and trade groups have advocated for electronic methods of conveying nutrition information via QR codes, smart phones and online searches.
The SmartLabel Transparency Initiative from the Grocery Manufacturers Association allows participating companies and brands to make ingredient and other information on all types of products available through QR codes, internet searches, websites, apps, a customer service desk and a 1-800 number.
According to a study last summer from the Food Marketing Institute, 72% of millennials were "somewhat to very likely" to use a QR code to check on specific product information. However, 45% of Gen Xers and 57% of baby boomers indicated they were "not at all likely" to access information that way.
In general, however, young adults tend to access information through smart phones and other mobile devices, so it makes sense to stress QR codes, internet searching and similar tools, as long as the results are quick and accurate. As the Minnesota study showed, most label users look for sugars, total calories, serving size and ingredients, so those should be the easiest to find.
Retailers and food manufacturers could also have roles to play in improving the situation. They could address concerns about how difficult it is to learn about what's on the Nutrition Facts labels, particularly after total sugars and dietary fiber, among other mandated changes, are added in 2020.
Retailers could also benefit by using nutrition labeling systems like Guiding Stars, which promotes higher sales in stores, according to a recent study. The Maine-based Hannaford Bros. Supermarkets first used the system in 2006, and it's now available at more than 1,200 U.S. supermarkets, including all Hannaford and Food Lion stores.
Busy consumers don't want to take the time to check out nutritional labels and other information while they shop. They want to grab items and go, so a fast but informative system is the one most likely to be used.