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Experts say online grocery shoppers may not be getting all the nutrition information they need on products. MoMo Productions/Getty Images
  • Researchers say nutrition labeling information is inadequate on many online grocery shopping sites.
  • They report that proper labeling required for foods is uniformly provided on only about a third of grocery items.
  • Experts say this lack of information is particularly troublesome for people with food allergies or medically necessary dietary limitations.
  • They urge consumers to shop carefully and provide specific information to the person who’s picking out groceries for them.

Shopping for groceries online may be convenient for many people, but the system wasn’t made to consider the limitations of food allergies or medically necessary dietary limitations.

In addition, insufficient labeling laws mean even the most well-intentioned product substitutions are still risky business.

A new analysis published today in Public Health Nutrition by researchers from the NYU School of Global Public Health and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Massachusetts reports that online food retailers are not consistently displaying nutrition information on their websites.

The researchers said that U.S. laws are lagging behind in mandating that the same labeling required for foods sold in brick-and-mortar stores be displayed on online sites.

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

The researchers analyzed 10 major food products from 9 major online grocery retailers.

They reported that proper nutrition information was displayed in a legible form about 36 percent of the time. Potential allergens, they wrote, were identified on about 11 percent of the products. Nutrition facts and ingredients were listed about 50 percent of the time.

The researchers also noted that online grocery shopping rose from about 3 percent to around 10 percent of total grocery sales from 2019 to 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. They predict online grocery shopping will increase to 21 percent of the market by 2025.

The researchers say the rapid growth in online grocery shopping is outpacing the enforcement of regulations in this sector of the industry.

Caroline West Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, community coordinator and instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, and owner at Caroline West LLC, explained how she, as a registered dietitian and former retail dietitian in a grocery store, knows the importance of accurate information for consumers and the challenges retailers face in trying to maintain accurate up-to-date information from product to shelf to online.

“There are a lot of people, processes, and systems that just aren’t designed to work together for this goal,” Passerrello told Healthline.

“Many food retailers who offer a curbside pick-up option substitute a similar item if the item ordered was out of stock,” she noted.

Passerrello said substituting items is part of a grocer’s job and they hold no legal responsibility for giving you a different product than the one you ordered.

“Online retailers have legal disclaimers posted to protect themselves in these situations,” she said.

However, while items may seem similar from the perspective of the team member doing the shopping, Passerrello warns that if the customer has a food allergy and the substitute item contains that allergen, that item is not an acceptable substitute.

“Until a system is designed, implemented, and enforced, it is the consumer’s responsibility to check the actual package when they receive it,” Passerrello said.

“Food hypersensitivities can impose a huge health concern for Americans,” Dr. Amy Lee, the chief medical officer of all 34 Lindora weight loss and wellness clinics across Southern California, told Healthline.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports there are more than 160 possible allergens found in our food sources that can cause reactions consistent with hypersensitivities.

However, only 8 ingredients are formally recognized by the FDA and listed on a food label.

Those major food allergens are:

  • milk
  • tree nuts
  • eggs
  • peanuts
  • fish
  • wheat
  • shellfish
  • soybeans

The 9th and newest one is sesame, but the food industry isn’t required to list it until January 2023.

Here are some of the other things that don’t fall under these regulations:

  • meats and poultry (because they belong to the U.S. Department of Agriculture)
  • alcohol (because it belongs to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau)
  • raw agriculture
  • drugs
  • cosmetics

If you purchase online groceries, Passerrello said she tells her clients to include a note in their order letting the in-store shopper know what to look out for when looking for substitutes.

“Consumers can also see if their retailer has registered dietitians working for them by reaching out to the registered dietitian or customer service department to see what specific systems may be in place for the retailer they use,” said Passerrello.

Lee added the 5 following recommendations:

  1. Eat less processed foods because you will end up avoiding any food products that may be cross-contaminated.
  2. Eat more poultry, produce, and fresh foods in general.
  3. Report any adverse reactions to the FDA so the agency can find a pattern of activities and possibly pinpoint which food manufacturers haven’t been keeping up with the regulations.
  4. Read labels and understand the many variations in words that could describe the same thing.
  5. Ask questions.

Consumers can also advocate for the FDA to issue guidance on how nutrition information should be displayed online at the point of sale.

“While the public comment period for the Federal Register has ended, consumers can still let their legislators know this is important to them,” said Passerrello.

When you reach out, tell them you’re referring to “Docket No. FDA-2021-N-0929 – Food and Drug Administration New Era of Smarter Food Safety Summit on E-Commerce.”