Nearly all food products in the online stores lack complete food product labels

Missing or hard-to-find food product information can have immediate and long-term health and safety consequences.

In the age of COVID and lockdowns, online grocery shopping has become a lifeline for families across Australia. It’s incredibly convenient to order everything you need with just a few clicks, but there’s a hidden concern that deserves attention – incomplete food labels. A recent study delved into the online stores of two supermarket giants, Coles and Woolworths, and the results are eye-opening.

The study, conducted in 2022, focused on more than 22,000 products available online. What they found is concerning: most of these products lacked crucial information that we often take for granted when shopping in physical stores. Imagine trying to make informed choices for your family without complete ingredient lists, allergy warnings, or Health Star Ratings (HSRs), which provide a quick summary of a product’s healthiness.

“Traditionally, shoppers could simply pick up a product to find relevant information. However, there are no requirements to provide the same information to online shoppers before they decide to commit their cash,” explains Damian Maganja, lead author of the study. This means that the absence of vital labelling information in online stores may not be a deliberate oversight but still fails to help us choose products that match our dietary or health needs.

If you or your family members have allergies, incomplete allergen information can be a serious risk. For everyone, accurate ingredient lists and HSRs play a crucial role in reducing the risk of chronic diseases like heart attacks and diabetes.

Some of the key findings from this study:

  1. Incomplete Information: Around half of all food products lacked allergen labelling (53%), nutrition information panels (NIPs) (49%), and only a third had ingredient lists (34%). These are essential details that help you make healthy choices for your family.
  2. Selective Health Star Ratings: HSRs, designed to guide you toward healthier choices, were rarely displayed online, appearing on just 14% of products. They were more likely to be present for higher-scoring products, suggesting that certain labels might be prioritized for marketing purposes.
  3. Visibility Matters: Coles tended to make information like NIPs, ingredients, and allergen information more visible, while Woolworths fell short in this aspect. It’s crucial for you to easily access this information when making online purchases.

How can you protect your family while shopping online?

  1. Double-Check Ingredients: Take extra time to review ingredient lists and allergen information. If someone in your family has allergies, this is a must to ensure their safety.
  2. Look for Health Star Ratings: If you aim for healthier choices, keep an eye out for HSRs. While they might not be present on all products, they can help you make informed decisions when they are available.
  3. Contact Customer Service: If you can’t find the information you need, don’t hesitate to reach out to the retailer’s customer service. They should be able to provide you with the missing details.
  4. Support Stronger Regulations: Advocate for stronger regulations governing product information in online retail settings. Urge policymakers to extend labelling standards that apply to physical products to online retailers as well. This ensures that everyone plays by the same rules, promoting safer and more informed shopping.

In the words of Mr Maganja, “It can be quite slow to update the regulations that look after the food system in Australia.” While Coles and Woolworths have pledged to improve online labelling practices, clear commitments and timeframes are necessary. Until then, the most effective way to ensure progress is to extend regulations to all online retailers that sell food products, including third-party aggregators and delivery services.

In conclusion, while online grocery shopping offers convenience, it’s vital to remain vigilant about the completeness of product labels, especially for the sake of your family’s health and safety. By taking proactive steps and supporting stronger regulations, you can make a difference in ensuring that online retailers provide the information you need to make informed and healthy choices for your loved ones.

The study, published today in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, is the first to assess the completeness of food labelling in online supermarkets in Australia and highlights the need for current regulations to include these settings so online shoppers can make informed choices.