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Poll: Americans look at food labels but are confused what information actually matters


If you want to reach someone with a food message, put it on a label. A new poll out of Michigan State shows that food labels influence the purchasing behavior of most Americans. Of course, the data told a much deeper story than that.

In a question designed to measure general scientific understanding, nearly half (49 percent) of consumers agree with the statement “all food with deoxyribonucleic acid should be labeled,” even though basically all food contains genes.

“Our polling continues to show that we in the scientific community have done a woeful job of conveying our message in a way that helps the public grasp key characteristics of the food system,” said Doug Buhler, who was co-director of the Michigan State University Food Literacy and Engagement Poll. “That is on us and it’s time we take this gap more seriously and rethink our strategies to educate consumers.”

The survey polled 2,048 Americans on a wide array of food topics in August 2018. It was launched in 2017 and is conducted twice a year.
Among the 60 percent of survey respondents who say food labels have an impact on their buying decisions, there are striking differences along socioeconomic lines. Seventy-one percent of consumers in households earning $75,000 or more annually pay close attention to food labels, compared to just 53 percent of those earning less than $25,000.

Education level appears to influence attention to labels as well. Seventy-eight percent of college graduates look at food labels, while just 50 percent of those with a high school diploma or less say the same.

Sixty-five percent of Americans say they look for products labeled “natural” when shopping for food, the term most sought after among a list of options offered in the survey. “Low sodium” and “clean” follow with 59 percent and 58 percent, respectively. More than half of Americans also look for the term “organic” (53 percent) and “location of production” (50 percent) on their food labels. Others indicated they looked for “Non-GMO/GMO-free” (49 percent), “smart” (40 percent) or “gluten-free” (36 percent).

“It’s notable that the most popular terms consumers search for on food labels are also the most ambiguous,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum, the poll’s other co-director. “Natural doesn’t necessarily imply something is healthy. For example, arsenic occurs naturally, but we shouldn’t eat it.”

Additional survey highlights include:

  • Fifty-nine percent of Americans always or sometimes purchase organic food. The most common reason is “organic food is healthier.”
  • Fifty-one percent rarely (less than once a month) or never seek information about where their food was grown or how it was produced.
  • Fifty-two percent of consumers trust academic scientists for information about the health and safety of food. Forty-five percent trust government scientists and 30 percent trust industry scientists.

For charts and more information about the MSU Food Literacy and Engagement Poll, visit

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