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Reading labels under time pressure

Food products carry labels to help you, the consumer, make informed choices about what you buy. But they only work if they capture your attention. Once they’ve got that, they also need you to interpret the information and translate it into facts that guide your actions.

The attention that consumers pay to food labels and their ability to use them to guide their actions depends on aspects such as the label size, position, prominence, and how many other elements there are on the food package [1] as well as factors related to the specific consumer. These consumer-specific factors include particular motivations, such as shopping with a health or diet goal in mind, and particular distractions, such as facing time constraints [2]. As you might expect, motivations increase the attention people give to labels whereas distractions prevent people from processing the information properly [3]. Marketing departments are well aware of these aspects and use such insights to build effective labels - though sometimes labelling can also be misleading as pointed out in Step 3.3.

How much time do we spend looking at labels in grocery stores?

A large research study across six European countries used observation in store to record whether people look at product labels before buying food. On average, people spent 35 seconds looking at a food product before placing it in their shopping basket. There were differences between countries with average times ranging from 28 seconds in the UK and Germany to 47 seconds in Poland and Hungary. On average, people spent the most time looking at ready meals (43 seconds) and the least time looking at salty snacks (21 seconds). More than 60% of the shoppers observed looked at the front-of-pack, whereas only about 7% looked elsewhere on the pack [4].

Clearly, people don’t spend a lot of time looking at food products before buying them; however, this study also shows that people’s choices are not just driven by habit.

How is our attention to food labels affected by time pressure?

Many studies investigating this question employ a methodology called eye-tracking (see Step 3.3) to provide an objective way to find out what captures shoppers’ attention and for how long [1].

One such study looked at the effect of nutrition elements of labels (nutrition declaration, traffic light type label and a health logo) and time pressure (one group faced time pressure and one didn’t) on attention and likelihood of choosing healthy products from a selection. It found that people’s attention to any of the elements decreased when they were faced with time pressure. When people are under time pressure, they also attend to fewer elements than when they have no time constraints. The shoppers spent less time looking at a simple health logo but more time on traffic light labels and the nutrition declaration - once they had paid attention [2]. On a positive note, both the traffic light label and the health logo led to an increase in the likelihood that people could make a healthy choice, even when they faced time pressure. This was not the case for the nutrition declaration.

Among the various elements of nutrition labels, the health logos require less processing time than traffic lights and the nutrition declaration. On the other hand, the traffic light requires less processing time than the Reference Intake (formerly, the GDA) [5]. Warning signs, which are not yet used in Europe, are even more effective at helping people identify foods containing nutrients to avoid than traffic light systems or the RI [6].

Whereas people are able, even under time pressure, to correctly use elements such as the traffic lights, their understanding of textual information about particular health benefits diminishes under time pressure. A study conducted in Denmark investigated the effect of time pressure on consumer understanding of health claims. A claim about beta-glucan (‘the consumption of beta-glucans from oats or barley as part of a meal contributes to the reduction of the blood glucose rise after that meal’) was shown on wholegrain bread or fruit yogurt and people were asked to rate different interpretations of the claim to measure their understanding. One group had to do the task under a time constraint while another group had as much time as they liked. The group under time pressure showed a worse understanding of the health claim than those who had as much time as they wanted. They were less likely to select accurate interpretations of the claim and more likely to select vague interpretations that didn’t demonstrate understanding [7].

What can we do to avoid misunderstanding labels under time pressure?

  • Some labels need less time to be processed but are effective in helping us to make choices. If they’re on the package, focus on health logos or traffic lights when you need to make a faster choice.

  • Familiarity with the different elements of labels and the information they provide is an important driver of attention [8], so taking courses like this one will also help you make informed choices even when you have limited time.

  • Research undertaken when you have more time (for example, inspecting the cereal packet at home during breakfast) enables you to select products you know meet your requirements when you are under time pressure, as habitual purchases don’t require as much processing.

  • Technological solutions, such as the Edo app help users to read food product labels and evaluate the nutritional profile of food. You can scan the barcode of a product (or search manually) and the app collects all the information found on the product’s label, summarises it and turns it into easily understandable information such as an overall healthiness index that is adapted to the user’s requirements. A recent study showed that using this app decreases people’s perception of barriers to healthy eating and increases their knowledge of healthy food [9]. This in turn can help create healthy habits that are easier to keep even when faced with time pressure.


Why not undertake some research right now? Select a product from your pantry and search up some alternatives online. Are there any reasons to switch brands or varieties? Share your findings in the comments area.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Food Labels

EIT Food

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