Because consumers are more health-conscious than ever, some food manufacturers employ deceptive tactics to persuade them to purchase highly processed and unhealthy products. Consumers find it difficult to understand food labeling regulations because they are complex.
Online food retailers do not consistently display nutrition information on their websites and U.S. laws are lagging behind in mandating the same labeling required for foods sold in brick-and-mortar stores, according to a new analysis by researchers from the NYU School of Global Public Health and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
“Information required to be provided to consumers in conventional grocery stores is not being uniformly provided online – in fact, it only appears on roughly a third of the online grocery items we surveyed,” said Jennifer Pomeranz, an assistant professor of public health policy and management at the NYU School of Global Public Health and lead author of the study, which was published in Public Health Nutrition.
“Our study shows that the online food shopping environment today is a bit of a ‘Wild West,’ with incomplete and inconsistent provision of required nutrition information to consumers,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School and the study’s senior author. “Online shopping will only continue to grow, and this creates an excellent opportunity to positively influence consumers to make healthy and safe choices. We need to leverage this chance to help make progress against the nutrition-related health crisis in this country.”
Our study shows that the online food shopping environment today is a bit of a ‘Wild West,’ with incomplete and inconsistent provision of required nutrition information to consumers.Dariush Mozaffarian
Online grocery shopping was already rapidly growing before COVID-19 emerged, but the pandemic has greatly accelerated its use. From 2019 to 2020, online grocery sales in the U.S. tripled from 3.4% to 10.2% of total grocery sales, and are projected to reach 21.5% of total sales by 2025. In addition, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) started a pilot program in 2019 to allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants to purchase groceries online.
However, this rapid growth in online grocery shopping has outpaced regulatory attention to information appearing on foods sold online. While U.S. law requires nutrition facts, allergen information, and ingredient lists to appear on the physical packaging of food products, these regulations do not currently extend to online retailers. As a result, crucial health and safety information may not be available to online grocery shoppers.
To better understand the landscape of what information appears with online groceries, the researchers analyzed 10 major products across nine major online grocery retailers to identify what information is displayed. They focused on bread, cereals, and drinks – packaged foods that are required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to have a standardized information panel disclosing nutrition facts, a list of ingredients, common food allergens, and, for fruit drinks, the percent juice. The researchers also reviewed the federal government’s legal authorities and limitations for requiring online food retailers to disclose nutrition information.
They found that this information was included and legible, on average, only 36.5% of the time across the products and retailers. Potential allergens were only disclosed on 11.4% of products, while nutrition facts and ingredient lists were each presents only about half the time (45.7% and 54.2%, respectively). In contrast, marketing health and nutrition-related claims such as “low sodium” on online product images were more common, appearing on 63.5% of products.
“Our findings highlight the current failure of both regulations and industry practice to provide a consistent environment in which online consumers can access information that is required in conventional stores,” said study author Sean Cash, the Bergstrom Foundation Professor in Global Nutrition at the Friedman School. “With the expectation that online grocery sales could top $100 billion for 2021, the requirements to provide consumers with information need to keep up with the evolving marketplace.”
The researchers then reviewed the federal government’s legal authorities and limitations for requiring online food retailers to disclose nutrition information. They identified three federal agencies that have existing regulatory authority over food labeling (the FDA), online sales and advertising (the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC), and SNAP retailers (the USDA). The researchers conclude that these agencies’ existing authorities can be leveraged to address gaps in labeling requirements in the online food retail environment.
“The federal government can and should act to require that online food retailers disclose required nutrition and allergen information to support consumer health and informed decision-making,” concluded Pomeranz.
Failing to consistently disclose this information on food products may present safety concerns for consumers who depend on it, as in the case of allergens, sodium, or sugar, according to the researchers.
“Labeling requirements are intended to protect consumers who are largely unable to protect themselves. This is even more salient for online sales where consumers cannot directly inspect products,” said Pomeranz. “At a minimum, the entire required nutritional information panel should be made visible and legible for consumers shopping for their groceries online.”