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Student-faculty research shows that nutrition labels leave a lot to be desired

by Luanne Williams

What are you eating and why? It’s a question that senior psychology major Hannah Mixon and assistant professor Matthew Davis spent the summer trying to figure out.

No, they didn’t spy on you in the drive-through at Taco Bell or surreptitiously photograph your grocery cart. Instead, they used survey results collected from psychology classes last fall to delve into how people make food choices. Specifically, they explored how factors such as cognitive reflection, numeracy, impulsivity and restrained eating influence a person’s ability to estimate calorie counts and use a nutrition-fact panel.

“We are studying the cognitive factors at play when making decisions about food – the why behind it, what is going on mentally when we make those choices,” Mixon says. “I want to know what is drawing people’s attention. What proponents are causing people to overeat? I am hoping to have more of an understanding about what psychologists should be doing to nudge consumers toward less consumption by modifying nutrition labels.”

It’s a noble cause in a nation with a growing obesity epidemic. Davis and Mixon are quick to point out a number of problems that contribute to overeating and weight gain.

“We have so many jobs that are sedentary,” Davis says.

“Then there’s the ease of restaurants and picking up food to go,” Mixon chimes in.

And even when consumers make an effort to analyze the content of chosen foods, it’s not that simple. 

“People think they use these nutrition-fact panels to decide about food,” Davis says, “but research shows they don’t.”

“Labels are sometimes based on old data,” Mixon adds. “Our serving sizes have not been updated since the ’70s or ’80s. So, ice cream, for instance, is usually a half-cup serving size, which is one little tiny scoop. We need these updated to reflect the serving size people really eat.”

Student Hanna Mixon examines the label on a package of ramen noodles

But before the pair can consider solutions, they must dig into what research has already been done and find ways to assess their survey results, a process that had Mixon spending much of the first part of the summer poring over dozens of published articles on similar studies.

“This will definitely benefit me in graduate school, being able to conduct research,” says Mixon, who plans to become a clinical psychologist. “I knew I was already interested in this, but once I started reading the research, I would come up with new ideas as I was writing the summaries, all kinds of future research ideas. I developed a passion for what we are doing. It really boosted my creativity.”

Who’s counting calories?

Davis and Mixon met twice a week to compare notes and analyze their survey results. What they found is that the higher the calories in the food shown, the more likely study participants were to underestimate the calorie count. In fact, all five items in their study that topped 500 calories had average estimates more than 100 calories below the actual count.

“Extrapolating to foods well above 500 calories, one can envision these underestimates becoming even more drastic,” Davis and Mixon wrote in an early draft of a paper summarizing their findings (8,000 words and counting). “Underestimating calories in this way has direct implications concerning overconsumption and potential weight gain or obesity.”

“Further, the inability to accurately estimate foods with a larger number of calories means the potential negative impact of high caloric meals is not fully understood by consumers. It is one thing to consume a high-calorie meal, but then adjust other daily consumption accordingly. However, when consumers are not able to accurately estimate their meals, adjustments thereafter presumably become scarcer.”

Hannah Mixon examines the label on a box of macaroni and cheese.

Perhaps predictably, the research duo found that survey participants who were better at understanding and working with numbers were more likely to estimate entree calories accurately, while those with lower numeracy scores more often underestimated. Interestingly, respondents who scored higher on an impulsivity measure were more accurate in their estimates than those who were rated as less impulsive, and male participants were more accurate than their female counterparts. Also, dieting did not turn out to be a predictor of calorie-estimation accuracy.

In their paper, Davis and Mixon present their findings as “evidence for the need to find ways to simplify calorie information so that all consumers have equal access to the information.” They say that if calorie information is difficult to grasp, because it is either complex or miscalculated, it simply cannot give consumers what they need to make dietary choices.

While the two continue to analyze their findings and put them into context, they’re also thinking about next steps. One course of action to be considered is a dual-column label, with the serving-size information on one layer and the nutrition information if the entire package were consumed on another.

“If we took that to a focus group or groups at Wingate, we could ask people, ‘Would you use this? Would you find it more useful?’” Mixon says. “That kind of information could be very beneficial.”

Although Mixon says she has long been a reader of nutrition panels, the research has made her even more detailed in her personal approach to nutrition. “I definitely think about serving sizes more,” she says. “I am analyzing everything now.”

Davis and Mixon’s project, funded by a Reeves Summer Research grant, is part of Davis’ ongoing research concerning the impact of cognitive and decision-making variables on food choice. Davis and Mixon were among seven Wingate University teams whose work was supported by Reeves this past summer.

  • Psychology

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