The popularity of online grocery shopping in the United States surged in early 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the expansion of a U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot program allowing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) users to purchase foods through websites.
University of Minnesota researchers conducted a study — recently published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior — to determine how well online grocery retailers display nutritional information that can enable buyers to make healthy food choices. They found that most retailers provide the nutrition information, such as a Nutrition Facts Panel and/or ingredient statement, but the ability to easily find or read nutritional information varied greatly.
The researchers looked at 26 different common food items from 12 leading grocery store websites to see if and how retailers provided the Nutrition Facts Panels and ingredient statements. If the information was available, the legibility of the Nutrition Facts panels and ingredient statements were classified from good to poor. The locations of the Nutrition Facts Panel and ingredient statement information were also recorded and noted as being viewed from the main product information page with no scrolling required; with scrolling required to view on the same page; within one click of the main page; or within two or more clicks from the product information page. The researchers explained that the location and ease of access to this information is important because it may be more likely to be utilized if it is easily found.
The study found:
- The Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient statement were available for 85% of foods for which this information is required on product packaging.
- Most commonly, Nutrition Facts Panel information was found one click away from the product information page.
- The legibility of nutrition facts panels and ingredient statements varied drastically, with some being ranked as having “exceptional legibility” and others having “poor legibility.” Nutrition Facts Panels and ingredient statements that were considered poor often had print that was too small or blurry to read.
- Most stores offered the ability to filter food search results by a nutrition-related food category. For example, many stores offered the ability to search for gluten-free foods.
- There were no stores that offered the ability to sort search results by a specific nutrition element, such as the milligrams of sodium per serving or per item.
"With the COVID-19 pandemic and the new ability to use SNAP funds online, more people than ever before are shopping for groceries online. It’s imperative that consumers have easy access to accurate nutrition information when making food purchases online," said study lead Kelly Olzenak, who was a graduate student at the School of Public Health when she conducted the research. "Additionally, there are constantly new trends, fads and products emerging that can make choosing foods and eating a balanced diet feel challenging and overwhelming, so it’s important that information be as accessible and understandable to consumers as possible.”
Olzenak says that more research is needed to build a better understanding of the extent to which nutrition information on online grocery shopping sites is lacking and the potential reasons for the gaps and their possible solutions. In addition, further work is needed to evaluate and optimize the available website features to support shoppers in making healthy food purchase decisions.
The study was funded by the J.B Hawley Student Research award.