Young Adults Don't Read Food Labels -- Are They Even Relevant Anymore?

In a survey of 1,800 Americans in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area aged 25-36, about a third (31.4%) said they used the Nutrition Facts label found on most foods and beverage packages “frequently.”

February 28, 2018

Originally published on Forbes.com.

In a survey of 1,800 Americans in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area aged 25-36, about a third (31.4%)  said they used the Nutrition Facts label found on most foods and beverage packages “frequently.” I’m surprised that the percentage of use is even that high.

The research, conducted by the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health and Medical School and published this month in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that women, those with higher education and income, and those concerned about their weight used the labels more frequently. The number one food attribute looked at the most was sugar, by almost three-quarters of the respondents, followed by total calories (72.9%), serving size (67.9%) and ingredients (65.8%); reinforcing the fact that people are not looking at the nutrition of foods holistically and are still picking and choosing those nutrients that are most important to them (often driven by the latest headlines). What this research didn’t cover are the reasons why; which is most likely a combination of mistrust of the labels themselves as well as consumer confusion.

A new report by USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), “Beyond Nutrition and Organic Labels—30 Years of Experience With Intervening in Food Labels,” evaluates the impact of Federal organic and nutrition labels and several other food labels that emerged in recent decades. Case studies of five food labels for which the Federal Government has played different roles are examined to show the economic effects and tradeoffs in setting product standards, verifying claims, and enforcing truthfulness.

What they found was that where there is no single, national standard for a food attribute and food suppliers develop product definitions and standards, label information may not be consistent and may mislead consumers. These labels may not be truthful or understandable.

The report looked at comparison of five food labels (based on criteria of who is involved, actions, and market outcomes): Nutrition labeling, USDA Organic seal, Raised without Antibiotics, Nongenetically engineered, and Country-of-origin label for beef and pork. They found that many consumers find the information too complex to use and that consumers may be confused.

Mandatory labels may include negative aspects of foods, but voluntary labels will not (the Nutritional Facts label is governed by USDA, others such as the industry funded and promoted Smart Label Initiative or Facts Up Front initiative are not). Thus, the report says, voluntary labels rely on consumers to infer negative characteristics from the absence of a label claim on some products (when it is present on other similar products). For this reason, the say, left to their own devices, food suppliers will offer only positive (and positively perceived) information. And we wonder why consumers are confused? In fact, in both these initiatives the problem is that no one is verifying that the information on the package or entered into a database is correct.

The report concludes with a discussion about technology solutions and says it best: However, although apps can include much more information than food labels can, apps (just like labels) must come from sources consumers trust. Apps are largely uncertified and unpoliced, which means they are of dubious quality.

Industry groups are pushing for QR codes to be placed on packages to uncover more information for consumers, and the debate continues on whether QR code technology is the correct means since a significant portion of the population who most needs the nutritional information may not own or have access to a smart phone. That debate is mute as it all goes back to verification. Regardless of the technology, if the information is not correct, the output becomes meaningless, and perhaps harmful.

The solution is AI. While Alexa and Google Home may not yet have the complete nutritional databases loaded, imagine how using this technology could become the gold standard – where a consumer or watchdog group could constantly update and correct misinformation through crowd-sourcing.

If we are to gain consumers trust on our food supply, and in particular on food labels – now more than ever transparency is a must-have.

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