THURSDAY, January 20, 2022 (HealthDay News) – Online grocery shopping jumped abruptly throughout pandemic, but many websites make it difficult to find nutritional information on products, a new study shows.
In the United States, packaged foods must have a label of dietary facts, a list of ingredients and warnings about common food allergens, prominent and legible.
According to a new study, it is not good to buy groceries online.
Looking at a sample of groceries sold by nine major online retailers, the researchers found that the required labeling was only inconsistently displayed. Nutritional facts and ingredients were present and legible about half the time, while allergen information was given infrequently.
The rise in online shopping seems to have overtaken federal regulators, researchers said.
“Maybe this hasn’t hit them yet,” said study leader Jennifer Pomeranz, an assistant professor at the NYU School of Global Public Health in New York City. “But I would call on federal agencies to address this.”
Meanwhile, she said, it is in the “best interest” of the company to voluntarily deal with empty consumer information. The study found that even individual websites did not appear to have a uniform policy for displaying nutrition information.
Online shopping was gaining momentum before COVID-19, but the pandemic sparked an explosion of popularity. Research shows that between 2019 and 2020, the percentage of Americans buying groceries online increased from 19% to 79%.
And it is projected that by next year, online orders will account for more than one-fifth of all U.S. food sales, according to Pomeranz’s team.
In theory, shopping online could make it easier for consumers – especially busy parents – to make healthy decisions, said Frances Fleming-Milici, a researcher who was not involved in the study.
“I talked to my parents about their shopping experiences at the store,” said Fleming-Milici of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health at the University of Connecticut. “They’re in a hurry, they don’t have time to differentiate products.”
On top of that, she noted, their children are looking for sweets they see at the box office, while their own stomach upset can make them buy food they might otherwise skip.
Buying groceries online could help parents avoid those problems, Fleming-Milici said. Unfortunately, she added, this study shows that they are not given the necessary information about the product.
“This is a real missed opportunity,” Fleming-Milici said.
Findings, published Jan. 20 in the journal Public health nutrition, are based on a sample of 10 brands of cereals, bread and beverages sold by nine online retailers. These included Amazon, Walmart, Fresh Direct and retail chains like ShopRite and Safeway.
The study found that on average, nutrition labels were “present, noticeable and legible” about 46% of the time on all products. Ingredient lists were somewhat more common with this tape, at 54%.
In the meantime, information on allergens was usually lacking. Several cereals and bread products had this information clearly displayed in 11% to 33% of the time.
Instead, consumers could more often expect to see claims about the product, such as “low sodium” – which are marketing tools that imply that the product is “healthy”.
“People want information, not blurring,” Fleming-Milici said.
Often, these claims were visible in the pictures of the product itself, research has shown. But in some cases, retailer websites have also fueled nutrition-related claims.
According to researchers, three federal agencies could potentially take action: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees food labeling; Federal Trade Commission, which has authority over online food sales and advertising; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which he leads Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which qualifies Americans for food. The USDA could also require online retailers participating in the program to provide all necessary nutrition information, the researchers noted.
Fleming-Milici agreed that the responsibility lies with the regulators. “I would really like to see a change in policy to address this,” she said.
She added that all companies would follow the same rules “level the playing field” for retailers.
For now, Pomeranz has suggested that consumers stick to online retailers that consistently provide the necessary nutrition information. It is more difficult, she noted, for people in the SNAP program, because only some traders participate.
Pomeranz also pointed out that food labeling is more than counting calories: people with health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes attention should be paid to contents such as sodium and sugar.
“This is also a matter of health and safety,” Pomeranz said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has more on understanding nutrition labels.
SOURCES: Jennifer Pomeranz, MPH, JD, Assistant Professor, Public Health Policy and Management, NYU School of Global Public Health, New York; Dr. Frances Fleming-Milici, Director of Marketing Initiatives, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health, University of Connecticut, Hartford, Conn .; Public Health Nutrition, January 20, 2022, online