The Eyes Don’t Lie: We Don’t Really Read Nutrition Labels

Note: See below reminder for Today’s Food Day Supermarket Tour

Here’s an interesting piece of research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association: People don’t really read nutrition labels as much as they report they do. Researchers used sophisticated computer software to track the eye movement of 200 participants who viewed various product info on a computer screen:

In a simulated grocery shopping exercise, 203 participants observed 64 different grocery products displayed on a computer monitor. Each screen contained three elements, the well-known Nutrition Facts label, a picture and list of ingredients, and a description of the product with price and quantity information. These 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. Read more

Only one third of the people that said they read the nutrition info actually did!!

The info that appeared at the top of the nutrition label was read more often than the info at the bottom.

When the nutrition info was placed in the center of the screen (vs. right or left side), it was read twice as often.

The conclusion, according to researchers:

Nutrition Facts label position within a viewing area and position of specific components on a label relate to viewing. Eye tracking is a valuable technology for evaluating consumers’ attention to nutrition information, informing nutrition labeling policy (eg, front-of-pack labels), and designing labels that best support healthy dietary decisions. 

When thinking about the proposed front of pack nutrition labeling initiatives coming from both industry and government, the stakes are very high. Will the info presented include positive datapoints or negative ones? Knowing that a consumer reads only one or two data before deciding, one can appreciate the efforts each side is putting into this debate.


To our readers in the San Francisco Bay Area:

Fooducate founder Hemi Weingarten will be conducting a supermarket tour Today, October 24, 2011, AKA Food Day. (FREE!

The Gameplan:

  • Walk through the aisles and learn how to read a nutrition label and ingredient lists.
  • Learn about food marketing tricks and nutrition labeling loopholes.
  • See that buying healthy food is not as expensive as you’d think.

When: TODAY, Monday Oct 24, 2 pm (estimated 40 minutes)

Where: Safeway in Foster City  - 921 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City, CA (map). We’ll meet at the entrance to the Supermarket. Look for the guy with the Fooducate T-shirt.

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  • Redstar22

    I realize you have an interest in people reading labels all the time since you developed an app for that, however; it is possible to eat healthy food without constantly reading labels.  Most of the food I purchase doesn’t even have labels on it, the rest I purchase regularly, I don’t need to read the label on every gallon of milk or block of cheese I buy.  I tend to buy the same things at the grocery store.  Sometimes a food isn’t the best choice, but I buy it regardless of what the label says.  A good example of that is fresh apple cider.  It’s only available for a few months, and I generally buy 2 half gallons a year, and drink 6 ounces 2-3 times a week. 

    • Fooducate

      Our interest is that people will eat healthier. And it seems like you already are – so kudos! 
      But many people look at product and THINK it is healthy because of marketing info on the package, when in fact reading the nutrition information would show them it’s not.

  • Mike Lieberman

    As I’ve become more aware of the labels and marketing, thanks in part to you, I’ve started to read the ingredients list and not the other claims.

  • Carol

    Ideally, people will at least pay attention to the key things in a nutrition label, but realistically, if you were to read every item in the nutrition label (and ingredients list) of every food product you bought or looked at in a grocery store, you’d probably be in the store for a couple hours. And if you buy the same products over and over (as most of us do), there is no need to read the label every time, because you are already familiar with the nutrition — and that’s probably why most of us keep buying certain products (optimum taste and nutrition).

  • Pingback: The big trans fat lie on your food’s nutrition facts label. | Fat Monitor Scales

  • J in VA

    I’m more likely to read the ingredient list than the nutrition info. I’m not afraid of good fat and tend to avoid most grains, but especially gluten and specifically wheat.

    That said, you should never assume that the brand X item you are buying today is the same as the brand X item you bought last month. Recipes change all the time–especially if the company is trying to save themselves money and charge you the same price.

  • Wendi

    Happy Food Day! Thank you to Hemi for making the first annual Food Day so memorable! I was a moderate-level-reader of ingredient lists and after today’s supermarket tour, I am now more aware of sodium and added fiber. Oh and those so unnatural dyes–Red and Yellow.

  • Allison

    I often bypass the nutrition label — which often is fairly meaningless compared to the ingredients label. That is where the really important information is! But then, once I see any kind of sugar listed, I go right back to the nutrition label to see how much they’ve piled in.

  • Anonymous

    The nutrition labels, with their squirrely  portion sizes, are less than helpful.  I read the ingredients.

  • Kristina

    I know that I’m reading the article after the fact, but if there were any way to have workshops in other states/cities besides the San Francisco Bay area in CA, it would help a lot of us know that we are reading labels correctly and eating healthier… (I would LOVE it if someone came to St. Paul/Minneapolis!)

  • Amber @ Au Coeur

    I never read the nutrition labels, only the ingredients.  At this point, I think the labels don’t really say much of anything meaningful, anyway.  Maybe that’s incorrect, but normally when i’m picking foods, I’m looking for the one that I could replicate in my own kitchen.  If it has ingredients made in a lab, it goes back on the shelf.