A woman holding a computer while looking into her refrigerator to create an online grocery shopping list

More Americans have turned to online grocery shopping during the pandemic than ever before, both for the convenience and peace of mind it offers. But a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior finds there’s a downside: When you shop online, you may have a harder time judging the nutritional quality of the food you’re buying.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota shopped for the same 26 foods (mostly packaged ones) at a dozen different grocery websites, including national retailers like Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods and midwestern stores like Hy-Vee and Coborn's. They found that nutrition or ingredient information wasn’t available for 15 percent of those foods, on average.

And even when the information was there, it wasn’t always easy to access or read. Shoppers would typically have to click away from the main product page to find it, or it was poorly displayed. Common problems included small font size, blurry type, and information being presented sideways or upside down.

“When it’s not available immediately, shoppers may not know to search around to find the information,” says Kelly Olzenak, MPH, RD, the study's lead author. Such deterrents may help explain why a 2018 survey from the International Food Information Council found that 48 percent of online shoppers said they read nutrition information before purchasing items, compared with 66 percent of in-person shoppers.

Easy Access, Better Health

The information on Nutrition Facts labels and ingredient lists, which the Food and Drug Administration requires on packaged foods, can be integral to a person’s health. “A person with heart failure may rely on the Nutrition Facts panels to choose foods low in sodium; someone with diabetes needs to know the carbohydrate count per serving,” Olzenak says.

More on Food Labels

And a recent update of the Nutrition Facts label makes it even more valuable for people trying to make healthier choices. “Now, the number of calories per serving is in larger, bolder type; added sugar amounts must be declared, and actual amounts of key vitamins are listed,” says Christen Cupples Cooper, EdD, RDN, founding director and chair of the nutrition and dietetics program at Pace University in New York. Plus, the serving sizes now listed better reflect typical serving sizes than they used to.

The University of Minnesota researchers hope their findings will nudge online grocers to create features that help consumers make more informed choices. Virtual grocery shopping is only going to become even more common. The pandemic might have pushed people to dip their toe in the online grocery world sooner than they might have, but even pre-COVID, market research firms Nielsen and FMI predicted that 70 percent of consumers would be grocery shopping online by 2024.

That means consumers are going to need ways to check nutrition that are as easy as it is in person, where they can just pick up a product, flip it over, and find what they're looking for. “In the world of nutrition there are constantly new trends, fads, and products, and that can make choosing foods and eating a balanced diet feel challenging and overwhelming,” Olzenak says. “The more accessible and understandable nutrition information is to consumers, the better.”

Shopping With Health in Mind

In the meantime, how can you make sure you get the information you need while online shopping? The first thing is to remind yourself to check for it. Although Nutrition Facts labels and ingredients lists may not be as easily accessible as they are when you shop in-person, they're available online more often than not. It may just take a little scrolling and clicking around to find them, Olzenak says.­

See if the websites you go to let you filter by product classifications that you might see on the front of a food package, such as gluten-free or nondairy. “This could be helpful if you have a specific dietary need like celiac disease or lactose intolerance and want to narrow down what products could be suitable,” Cooper says. But you should still take the extra step to check for the full nutrition information, because such filters won’t tell you anything about the calories, added sugars, saturated fat, or other key nutritional components.

Also, remember that some of the healthiest foods—such as fresh fruit and vegetables and fish—aren’t required to carry a nutrition label at all, or are single ingredient foods, like brown rice or chickpeas. “I encourage my clients to choose whole foods that don’t need labels,” Cooper says “because the nutrition speaks for itself.”