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Nutrition Label: To Read or Not to Read

While they don’t quite make the New York Times Bestseller List, nutrition labels hold valuable information that affects your health and wellness. These labels are a good-read you definitely don’t want to miss.

While most people have looked at labels before, it may not be a real eye-catcher. In fact, a new study shows that people claim they look at labels more often than they really do.

Over 200 people participated in a study performed by researchers at the University of Minnesota, and using a computer based grocery shopping exercise, they tracked the participants’ eye movements to see if they peeked at the label or not.

Researchers found quite a difference between what the eye tracker found and what the participants themselves reported. 33% of participants said they “almost always” looked at calorie content on the Nutrition Facts label. Interestingly, the eye-tracking data showed that only 9% of people looked at calorie count, while 1% looked at each of the other components, including fat, trans fat, sugar and serving size, for almost all of the products.

While the participants may not have looked at the label as much as they thought they did, the good news is: 70% of them viewed at least one component of the Nutrition Facts Label, with over half of them looking at the servings, calories, total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat.

According to the authors, “In the simulated shopping setting, participants could see Nutrition Facts labels without having to turn, rotate, or otherwise manipulate a food package. In contrast, Nutrition Facts labels on food packages tend to be in locations that cannot be seen by consumers looking at the front of a package (e.g., when viewing a shelf of items in a grocery store).”

The study participants were more likely to read the nutrition facts label if it was presented in the middle column on the screen in front of them, rather than on either of the side columns.

Interestingly, people were more likely to look at the information presented at the top of the label, as opposed to the bottom, where the vitamins and mineral content is located.

There were only a handful of people who looked at every single line on the label.

Understanding a label for what it really is can be a real art. With the array of health claims presented on the front, sides, and all over the packaging of food products, it’s no wonder we often have a hard time knowing which foods really are best.

In an effort to grab the eye and sway harried consumers to try and see a healthy choice, food label designers work hard to make healthy claims about their products in places other than the label. For example, ‘Fat-Free’ can become a guise for ‘healthy’, even if the product is loaded with sugar.

According to this recent research, consumers’ health may be better served by having the most important nutrition facts at the top of the Nutrition Facts label, and if there were some way to have a brief summary of the Nutrition Facts label more front and center on packaging, then consumers would be more likely to observe the nutrition information about the food product right there in the grocery store.

Even First Lady Michelle Obama is on board with the call for clearer labeling, along with the National Institutes of Health, and a number of other health organizations. As the regulatory body with regards to food labeling laws, the FDA may to have some additional decisions to make.

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