There’s a lot of stuff about tainted food in the news, whether it is toxins in imports or questionable additives in US products (e.g., bisphenol A in hard plastics). This stuff is not on any food label, of course, but there is a lot of detailed stuff that is on labels and increased concern about food seems to have made label reading more common. I’ve always wondered if the detail was encouraging or discouraging people from reading labels. How many people read labels really? Quite a few, it turns out, at least if you believe a new report, Label Reading from a Consumer Perspective, by the Hartman Group. What do people read and in what order?
Freshness dates, nutrition facts panels and ingredients lists are priorities for most consumers when reading product labels, according to a new report.
The new report examines the relevance, usefulness and effectiveness of information on labels. It also looks at the level of consumer awareness, their familiarity and their trust of a number of different symbols used in today’s marketplace.
“Consumers are doing more than just glancing at labels, they are actually reading them,” stated the report. (Food Navigator Report)
Almost a third of survey respondents said that even compared to a year ago they were reading labels “much more frequently.” Another third say they are reading labels “slightly more often.”
It’s interesting that the label component of most interest is the “sell by” date (60% of respondents). Next comes nutritional labeling, especially calories and fat (50%) about the same as freshness or “made on” dates. Thus at least half (the first and third)relate to consumer suspicion about food manufacturers, vendors and retailers. Caveat emptor is the principle behind than half of all food label reading. Healthy lifestyle is also in the mix, fueled by an obsession about weight. People now would like to know the country of origin of ingredients, although under modern industrial food production this can be difficult or impossible to figure out, even for producers. But even when present, it’s a lot of information and not always easy to figure out.
According to Hartman, many shoppers expressed frustration with locating the information they were looking for on a label.
In addition, consumers reported difficulties in deciphering elements on the nutrition facts panel because of variations in product properties in relation to serving size that may vary by product type, brand or category,
Another difficulty reported was the small font size of ingredients lists. The US Food and Drug Administration sets a minimum font size requirement of 1/16 inch in height. And because most marketers stick to the minimum requirement, many consumers, particularly the aging population, have difficulties reading the information.
There is consumer interest and one would think there is a public interest served by clear, proper labeling that contains relevant information. The interests of the food manufacturers don’t coincide with this public interest, but Congress has more often listened to manufacturers than the public. Be that as it may, these findings suggest that providing useful information on food labels is not a waste. Many people want it and will use it.
Of course they won’t if you need a microscope to read it.