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Two decades after Nutrition Facts panel first rolled out and in the midst of the current publicity surrounding the Food & Drug Administration’s proposed updates to it, interest in reading labels containing such nutritional information has steadily decreased among U.S. households, according to The NPD Group, whose ongoing food and beverage market research shows that consumers read the labels when they first appeared but over time, many stopped consulting them.
Through its National Eating Trends service, which monitors the eating and drinking habits of U.S. consumers, NPD asks consumers how much they agree with the statement: “I frequently check labels to determine whether the foods I buy contain anything I’m trying to avoid.” In 1990, following passage of the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), 65 percent of consumers completely or mostly agreed with the statement; that percentage fell to 60 percent in 1994, shortly before the Nutrition Facts labels debuted on food packaging, and rose to 64 percent in 1995 after the labels were introduced. Since 1995, the percentages of consumers in agreement have varied from a high of 61 percent to a low of 48 percent in 2013.
A Measure of Success
“The most likely reason for this decline is that the effort succeeded in educating Americans about what’s in their food,” noted Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD and author of “Eating Patterns in America.” “After all, how many times do you need to look at the Nutrition Facts label on your favorite cereal, or your favorite juice, and any other food you routinely consume?”
NPD also tracks what consumers usually look for when they read the Nutrition Facts label. According to its Dieting Monitor, which looks at shoppers’ top-of-mind dieting and nutrition-related issues, the top five items looked for by label readers are, in consecutive order, calories, total fat, sugar, sodium, and calories from fat.
“It’s a safe bet that Americans now want more information, but be careful, there are always new issues that come up every few years,” added Balzer. “If the Nutrition Facts label is to continue to educate, it should allow for changes more often than once every 20 years. For example, gluten, probiotics and omega-3 were not on the radar screen 20 years ago.”