Food labels evaluated by Colorado State researcher

Stephanie Mason

Charlie Heidrick wears the eye scanning glasses used in Dan Graham's grochery shopping simulation lab.
Charlie Heidrick wears the eye scanning glasses used in Dan Graham’s grochery shopping simulation lab. (Photo credit: Stephanie Mason)

To observe the way people look at and interpret food labels, Dan Graham, a psychology researcher at Colorado State, is looking at how people view nutrition information in a mock grocery shopping experiment.

“I think there are a lot of people interested in making the healthier choice, but don’t know how,” Graham said. “The original research question I had was whether people use research information, so most of the research we have been doing is making small changes to the nutrition information.”

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Graham’s experiments use eye-tracking devices to see what health information is being used in the consumer’s purchase decision.

“When you have a facts panel with a ton of information on it, we are originally just looking at what parts of this do people look at,” Graham said. “So the eye tracker that was in front of the desktop can do a line-by line analysis of how much time people spend looking at each part of the label.”

The research is finding that people look mostly at just the first few lines of nutrition information.

“Most people kind of start reading a label at the top around the calories section and then read four or five lines and then stop,” Graham said. “Just by being lower farther down on the label, something like sugar gets a lot less of people’s attention than something that may be higher up.”

Graham’s lab is experimenting with putting new health labels on the front of packages.

“We have been kind of interested in these location effects,” Graham said. “Where can we put information so that people will see it.”

Entering Graham’s grocery shopping simulation lab, there is an aisle full of boxed and canned goods that are commonly found at grocery stores. But there is an alteration to the packaging.

Graham and those working in his lab are looking at the behaviors of consumers in grocery stores.

“We are setting up a mini grocery store to see how people pick foods; if they are picking up things based off of health,” said Adina Dumitrache, an assistant in Graham’s lab.

The most recent experiment is looking at a label that includes stars as health symbols.

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“The main thing we are focused on looking at is these star based labels that we added to the packages to see if people look at them and use them,” Graham said.

Eye scanner glasses used in Dan Graham's lab.
Eye scanner glasses used in Dan Graham’s lab. (Photo credit: Stephanie Mason)

The four stars each represent a specific nutrient based off of the Institute of Medicine’s proposed labeling system. They recommended that sugar, fat and salt were the factors highlighted with the stars.

“So, if a product has a healthy amount of fat in it, it gets that star,” Graham said.

According to Graham, companies that are already using packaging that highlights health benefits.

“What is going on now is that people are just putting anything that might sound good, whether it relevant or not,” Graham said. “What we are doing with the stars right now is using a system that people can understand.”

Graduate research assistant Charlie Heidrick has been preparing the lab for the grocery aisle experiment, which will be starting next week.

“With the grocery aisle one, we will be bringing in parents with their actual children that will be selecting foods,” Heidrick said. “So, we are actually a lot more concerned with the family dynamic.”

According to Graham, consumers may not look at all the nutrition information, but they would be more likely to pay attention to something eye-catching and easy to process.

Charlie Heidrick demonstrating the process of food label evaluation with eye scanning glasses. (Photo credit: Stephanie Mason)
Charlie Heidrick demonstrating the process of food label evaluation with eye scanning glasses. (Photo credit: Stephanie Mason)

“We are hoping that it will help people with the quick comparison decisions,” Graham said.

According to Heidrick, there are many factors that the lab is looking further into.

“It is interesting to be able to evaluate environmental and social factors that influence the things we eat,” Heidrick said.

Collegian Science Beat Reporter Stephanie Mason can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @Stephersmason.