An Appetizing Question: Why Don’t We Read Nutrition Labels?

24 Feb

A single wheat tortilla has 18% of the daily value of sodium. I discovered it just recently. The discovery followed my reading an article discussing serious negative consequences of excess sodium for heart health. In turn, the discovery was followed by two others: I realized that I insufficiently assimilated information from food labels in general and that I was curious to know why that was the case.

One way to understand this shift is the following: attention is a limited resource and only allocated to things deemed important. Once the importance was established, attention followed.


  1. Attention is not that limited a resource.
  2. The marginal cost of attention to sodium is small given I generally do look at the calorie content.
  3. Given that I encounter same or similar choice tasks repeatedly—cost per choice, invested once, is close to zero.

What are the reasons behind this seeming conundrum?

In the domain of food, we care about three things: price, taste, and health. Let’s leave out the price for now. This leaves us with taste and health. While making a choice, we recruit ‘relevant’ (more later) information to assess choices in a manner that maximize our utility.

Assume we have a strict preference for taste over health; more narrowly —taste always wins whatever the health information; health information comes into play only when the taste is equivalent. Health information in this scenario is immaterial, and one only needs to focus on information about taste to maximize his/her utility. So, one way to explain my inattention to relevant health information is just that.

Expanding upon the toy example, orderings of things we care about (utilities) dictate the way we seek information, and what information is sought. However, observation tells us that the ordinal structure of utilities is manipulable in the domain of food. For example, we prefer taste strongly but if health information were to be made salient, we would be liable to choose something healthy. One inference which we can draw from such manipulability of order is that the initial preference ordering must not have been strong. But that doesn’t seem right given our strong preference for taste ‘explains’ subdual of information seeking on health.

Rational choice assumes that if information acquisition costs are zero, more information should always be sought, and used in decision making. Rational Choice seems inadequate to the task of explaining, hide and not seek.

Let’s assume we have subconscious and conscious preferences (aside from assuming a subconscious). Subconsciously we greatly prefer taste more than health. Consciously we prefer the reverse. Taste wins if health information is not made salient at the time of purchase. Assuming subconscious controls behavior, health information is deliberately not sought.

Another way to think about underlying preference structure is the following— aside from preferring tastier food, we also prefer feeling good about our decision. Feelings about a decision are evaluative and emerge from whether we chose wisely given information. So one way to include good feelings is to choose healthy food but that sacrifices our preference for taste. Another way this is resolved is ignoring information about health, which is much more easily ignored than information about taste.

Given this, we suppress health information. Interestingly this suppression doesn’t extend to information seeking about health on all fronts but applies only during decision time about a food.

Another interesting psychological thing to note here is that we have negative affect associated with decisions that lead to negative long-term consequences, but we also have ways to prevent this negative affect pathway from being triggered at all. Additionally, the information suppression isn’t a one-time-only but long term because we want to repeatedly ”sin.” This, in turn, means that we firstly somehow ‘know’ that the food is unhealthy and hence not look at the health information, otherwise wouldn’t it just help boost one of the reasons for consuming something tasty, but don’t consciously acknowledge this information.

Yet another way to think about the problem is to assume that we have preferences for health but they are somewhat lower in order of priority. For lower order preferences (here health), information seeking becomes more passive and increasingly depends on how easy it is to acquire information, for example, how prominently it is displayed. Social desirability pressures may also play a larger role in moderating information acquisition when importance is low. For example, in US people frown upon those who look at labels in a supermarket. Thus cowed, people may be less likely to look up information. Though it was always possible to look up the information once home, and now given ease and convenience of anonymous information gathering (Internet), it is likely that social desirability issues are less of a factor (it is likely that social desirability pressures continue to apply when one is alone.) However in cases where other lower order preferences predict same choice information about them is likely highlighted. For example, if a tasty thing were healthy as well, it is likely that one reminds oneself of the health benefits while making the choice.

But why is taste implicitly prioritized over health? One explanation is that preference for taste is evolutionary – the positive immuno-response from eating calorie-rich food is biologically potent. Another is that consequences on health from choosing unhealthy food are long term while gratifications from taste are instantaneous. Given that, it allows us to more readily imagine the consequences of one which in turn is perhaps define one of the key ways we decide our preferences. Lastly, the preference for taste in matters of food has become likelier due to advertising and its constant valorization of taste over everything else.

It is still awe-inducing to see to what degree our brain is lazy and inhibits acquisition of reasonably readily available information.

The above analysis assumed considerations dictating choice at the point of purchase. Once we have bought something, however, another consideration applies — we have invested in x, so now enjoy it. What is the point of reading information now that I have already spent money?

A few straight forward policy proposals emerge, given what we know about how people behave,

  1. Front of package labeling
  2. Prominent, easy to read, comprehend, labeling
  3. Priming aim — be healthy
  4. Priming habit — look for information when buying food
  5. Priming consequences


The word ‘we’ is in quotes in the title because I do not have data to show how widespread the tendency is.