In a past life, before science communications, I was a scientist who did actual experiments in a lab. While doing said science at MIT, I had the privilege of being able to design and run my own study on a topic that’s important to me and millions of other people — food allergies. The final paper was presented today by my friend and colleague Hillary Abraham at the Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting. You can read it in full here.
As a food allergy sufferer myself, I’m happy that in recent years, food allergies have been getting more attention and legitimate support from the medical and scientific community. And it’s a huge group to pay attention to -- 15 million Americans have food allergies that result in over 30,000 annual hospitalizations and hundreds of deaths following accidental consumption of an allergen.
One reason for this is because in the US, there are limited federal standards for companies to follow when labeling allergens in food products (the FDA's food labeling guide is particularly long and convoluted). Products need to list the common name of the allergen in the ingredients, but most font types, colors, and additional warnings are up to the manufacturer. That means some products might have no explicit warning, or have additional warnings that a product “contains” an allergen. Furthermore a food company might voluntarily choose to warn consumers that the product might have been cross-contaminated, but they aren’t mandated by law to do so.
This lack of a standard labeling practice results in extremely varied food labels, some of which are easier to read than others, and makes grocery shopping a serious pain in the butt for those of us with allergies. One study found that among 98 food products with cross-contamination warnings, there were 25 different phrases! The only advice for allergy sufferers is to read “every label, every time” according to the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). Unfortunately there has been little to no research on if the advice from FARE is faster, easier or more effective with certain kinds of labels -- until now.
Our study specifically focused on nut allergies, with the original question being: Do certain typographic styles affect people’s ability to correctly identify allergens in food? But after I spent a dozen hours in grocery stores choosing products to include in the experimental design, I realized that there was no way to control for the variability across each manufacturer’s different choices on label typography. Some products had a big red allergen section while others only included them in the small black ingredients list — a list that sometimes felt longer than this article as I was reading every label on every product in aisle 12 of the Cambridge Stop & Shop.
The study ultimately evolved into an analysis of how much time it would take a potentially nut-allergic consumer to correctly determine if a product is safe for consumption or not by analyzing the food label. Participants (who had no known food allergies) were asked to imagine as if they were grocery shopping for someone with a nut allergy. They were video recorded as they randomly selected products, and gave a verbal yes/no in regard to whether or not the food was safe to eat.
The results showed that participants had difficulty and took a longer amount of time to correctly identify allergens if the packaging only listed the allergen in the ingredients list or had a confusing cross-contamination statement. If a product had a clearly defined and obviously labeled allergen statement, participants tended to answer more rapidly and correctly. However, safe products without a “nut-free” label took the longest to identify as safe, and were most often classified inaccurately - better safe than sorry! In a post-experiment questionnaire, participants self-reported that aesthetic challenges of the packaging made it difficult to read ingredients, such as glossy packaging, low contrast, small font, and inconsistent labelling practices. They reported feeling empathetic towards allergy sufferers who had to read “every label, every time.” Given these results, it’s safe to say we need more research on how additional typographic factors affect accurate classification.
Ultimately with this study, I hoped to draw attention to the lack of standardization in US allergen warning labels and how high of a burden it creates for allergy sufferers. Adding symbols that let shoppers know a product is free from allergens could dramatically reduce shopping time and energy spent looking for an allergen that isn’t in the product. More importantly, a consistent warning label scheme might reduce the risk of accidental exposure to allergens, potentially leading to fewer related emergency room visits, hospitalizations and deaths. Better labels could save lives, while saving the healthcare system money -- seems like a win for everyone involved.