Buying your groceries online could leave you missing key information, study says

But the transition online hasn’t been smooth sailing, according to a new study published Thursday.
Federal regulations require packaged foods to have nutritional facts and ingredients available for consumers to review when shopping at traditional grocery stores. But the study published in Public Health Nutrition found that information for some products in many online retailers was not listed anywhere.

“I think the idea of ​​not reading food labels is a misconception,” said Jennifer Pomeranz, associate professor of public health policy and management at New York University’s School of Global Public Health. “People who have been diagnosed with a disease or have been told that they are at risk of illness, the elderly, people with children…People with allergies. …People read food labels for various reasons, and they are very important for safety purposes.”

The study looked at 10 major national packaged products across nine online retailers at the beginning of 2021 and found that nutritional facts and ingredient lists were not included at all for nearly 11% of products across retailers. According to the study, in the products that contained it, 63% did not detect the presence of common food allergens.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration determines the information that must be provided to consumers. This includes serving sizes, calories, added sugars, allergens, ingredients, and daily values ​​for sodium, sugar, carbohydrates, fat and protein.

“I would argue that not revealing the Nutrition Facts panel and the ingredients list, including allergens, is an unfair or deceptive act,” Pomerans said.

Wendy White, director of the food and beverage industry at Georgia Institute of Technology, who was not affiliated with the study, said there are limitations to the study in that the sample size is small. White added that the small sample could limit the research’s ability to get an accurate look at the state of nutritional information online.

Keeping up with covid-19

In a world where people are increasingly aware of what is in their food, Pomeranz predicts that leaving out nutritional information is a strategy for selling packaged foods.

But White believes the issue is more logistical than strategic.

“The pandemic has changed everything for everyone,” White said. “It really accelerated[online]sales growth in a way that no one expected, and all of a sudden this problem came to the fore.”

She added, “It’s an excuse like any other, but I really believe that with the pandemic, a lot of retailers have been caught ignorant, and they’ve really had to put together their online e-commerce platforms really, really quickly.”

White explained that for a company looking to get a lot of product to many people quickly, it’s a lot easier to put a picture of the package online than to make sure all the information is easily accessible.

The FDA is responsible for regulating labeling practices, and although White said the agency has taken steps to address the information gap online, it may take time.

“I think the FDA is certainly taking steps to correct this gap that we currently have in some types of online food sales, but unfortunately, the speed with which the FDA can create and then enforce regulations,” she said. Significantly slow.

People need to know

Whether it’s due to allergies, diabetes, high blood pressure, or even just a health consideration, White said many people are very careful about what they eat.

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“Understanding what is in the product, especially the combination product, is vital to many consumers out there,” White said.

The United States has rules and regulations about how companies disclose nutritional information, which shows both the ingredients in a food and the amount of potentially harmful elements like sodium and sugar in a meal.

“The American consumer has become very used to being able to access this information very easily,” White said. “They used to go to the supermarket, pick out the box, look at the label and understand what exactly is in that product.”

Pomeranz said that while policy at a national level may be slow, the public can enhance transparency from online retail grocers as they choose to spend their money.

“Online retailers have the ability to keep track of our purchases and what we look for online, so it’s important for people to know they’re not shopping on a blank page,” she said. “With this knowledge, it is worth looking for retailers who provide the information.”

Pomeranz added, “It’s becoming a much more hot topic for younger consumers, and they obviously have a lot of buying power. So, it would be worth it for retailers to compete on this aspect of transparency.”


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