“Salad is easy to identify as very healthy, chips are easily identifiable as a very unhealthy product for consumers,” said the study, led by Dr George Davis, professor at the department of human nutrition, foods, and exercise at Virginia Tech University. “Consumers may already hold the opinion that products are healthful or unhealthful.
“However, consumers might infer health using the halo effect, e.g., a fat free product is considered overall as healthier, because it is fat free—even though it might have more calories due to added sugar, compared to a whole fat product. “In those cases consumers can be misled when using the heuristic to make a decision instead of using information, such as, the NFP.”
Labelling situation in the EU
Labeling food with nutrition facts is a means to support consumers making healthier food choices. NFPs are mandatory in countries within the EU member states and the introduction of three regulations (Regulations No. 1924/2006, 1169/2011, and 432/2012) providing the platform for a mandatory rollout of NFP for packaged foods in December 2016. Subsequent studies looking into their effectiveness have questioned whether the method of presenting this information matters, regardless of the country.
Research from Europe provides evidence that most consumers do not generally attend to nutrition when grocery shopping with one study conducted in six European countries, found less than one third of consumers paid attention to this information when buying food.
Similarly, a review of consumers’ understanding of EU legislation on nutrition and health claims, pointed out that nutrition labels were unlikely to lead to an improvement in healthy food choices if consumers did not pay attention to them.
Using eye-tracking technology in a between-subjects experiment, the team tested for differences between attention to the current and modified NFP but also for differences across food items. Generally NFPs, in particular calories per serving and serving size for the modified NFP received more attention when placed on healthier items (salad, yogurt, and healthy frozen meal), in comparison to current NFP.
For less healthy items (cereal, cookies, chips), less attention was generally paid to the overall NFP, calories per serving, and serving size for the modified NFP in comparison to the current NFP.
In terms of across items, the items that are considered the healthiest (salad) and unhealthiest (chips) generally receive much less attention across both the current and modified NFP. While there are some statistical differences, the other items (yogurt, healthy frozen meal, cereal, and cookies) receive much more comparable attention levels in each of the areas of interest, and across the current and modified NFP.
“Consumers could attempt to avoid confronting unpleasant information, hence, they pay less attention to the NFP for the unhealthiest item,” the study said. “Consumers have a bias toward confirming preconceived notions, and thus are likely able to process the information faster or decide to avoid unpleasant information. “However, further research is needed to tease out this possible asymmetric explanation for less attention to nutrition facts for the healthiest product (just confirming prior knowledge) and for the least healthy product (information avoidance).”