Americans may think they are paying attention to the Nutrition Facts panel on the foods they purchase, but a new study suggests that most people have the attention span of a two-year-old when it comes to really reading nutrition information.

Researchers put 203 people to the test by having them observe 64 grocery store items on a computer monitor. Each screen showed the nutrition label, a picture with a list of the ingredients, and a description of the product with price and quantity information. The Nutrition Facts label was shown either on the left, the right, or in the center of the screen so that one third of the participants saw it in each location. The study did not address how well consumers understand the information on the labels.

The researchers believe the current location of the label is one reason why it may not be read frequently or thoroughly by consumers.

The computers were equipped with a tracking device to follow eye movements of the participants as they viewed each screen. While the participants knew their eye movements were being followed, they did not know that the focus of the study was nutrition information.

Each subject also completed a survey about their typical grocery shopping and health behaviors. The survey showed that 33 percent of participants said they "almost always" look at calorie content on nutrition labels. The eye-tracker didn’t see eye to eye with the participants: only 9 percent actually looked at calorie information on almost all food products on the computer screen. Thirty-one percent said they "almost always" look at total fat, 20 percent said the same for trans fat, 24 percent for sugar, and 26 percent said they looked at serving size. Again, the eye-tracker disagreed. Only about 1 percent actually looked at all the other nutrition information on all food products.

The eye-tracker also found that when the Nutrition Facts label was displayed in the center, subjects read one or more sections of 61 percent of the labels compared to 37 percent and 34 percent when viewed on the left or right side of the screen. The label components at the top were looked at more often than those at the bottom, and most people focused on the top five lines. Nutrition labels located in the center of the screen received more than 30 percent greater view time than those placed on either the left or right side. The researchers believe the current location of the label is one reason why it may not be read frequently or thoroughly by consumers.

As the researchers, Dr. Dan Graham and Dr. Robert Jeffery, both in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, said in a news release, "The results of this study suggest that consumers have a finite attention span for Nutrition Facts labels; although most consumers did view labels, very few consumers viewed every component on the label."

The current Nutrition Facts label was mandated under the 1990 Nutrition Education and Labeling Act, and has been used on all food packages since 1995. The panel is typically located peripherally on a food package, not centrally and, as such, may be less likely to catch and hold the eye of a consumer.

Earlier this month an Institute of Medicine committee recommended a new food labeling system that would be simple, provide visual clarity, and have the ability to convey meaning without written information, i.e. a star rating system.

The study was published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.