New analysis finds food labeling inconsistent in online grocery stores

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As more online food retailers emerge and people choose to shop for groceries via the Internet, a new analysis explores why nutritional labels aren’t as up to par as requirements for brick-and-mortar stores.

The analysis, published in Public Health Nutrition, and led by researchers from the New York University School of Global Public Health and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, also looked at why laws in the United States are lagging behind in mandating nutritional labeling.

According to the analysis, researchers sought to characterize the extent and variability that online retailers disclose required and regulated information and identify the legal authorities for the federal government to require online food retailers to disclose such information.

A limited scan of 10 products was performed across nine national online retailers. Legal research was also conducted using LexisNexis to analyze federal regulatory agencies’ authorities. Researchers 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.

The results revealed that this required information was present and legible for on average only 36.5 percent of the products surveyed, ranging from 11.4 percent for potential allergens to 47.5 percent for nutrition facts and 54.2 percent for ingredients lists. Voluntary health and nutrition-related claims such as “low sodium” on online product images were more common, appearing on 63.5 percent of products, according to the analysis.

“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, JD, MPH, an assistant professor of public health policy and management at the NYU School of Global Public Health and lead author of the study.

In addition, researchers found that the FDA, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Department of Agriculture have existing regulatory authority over labelling, online sales, and advertising. While nutrition facts, allergen information, and ingredient lists are required by U.S. law to appear on the physical packaging of food products, these regulations do not currently extend to online retailers.

 Between 2019 and 2020, consumers’ use of online platforms to purchase at least some of their groceries jumped from 19 percent to 79 percent, and this number is expected to grow, according to the analysis.  

Integrative practitioners should keep this in mind as they work with their patients to create lifestyle plans as nutritional information may not be as readily accessible online, which could ultimately be a barrier to making healthy food choices.