food nutritional label
September 20, 2012

Reading Nutritional Labels On Food Can Help Keep Women Thinner

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

Next time you find yourself in a supermarket or a convenience store, you might want to check the back of the box as it could do you a lot of good. A new study from the Institute of Agriculture´s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Tennessee (UT), the University of Santiago de Compostela, the University of Arkansas, and the Norwegian Institute for Agricultural Finance Research, found that female shoppers who read the labels before making purchases were thinner than those who didn´t.

In particular, women who perused food labels were almost nine pounds lighter than their counterparts who didn´t read the labels. The study´s findings were recently published in the journal Agricultural Economics.

“Reading food labels is important because it allows shoppers to improve diet quality by making more informed decisions in food purchases,” explained Steven T. Yen, a UT professor who serves at the institute, in a prepared statement.

Apart from this current study on food labels, past research has investigated the issue of obesity in the United States. As the number of obese and overweight individuals has risen, so has the cost of healthcare. One study found that medical expenses linked to obesity caused almost $96.2 billion in 2002 dollars, which refers to approximately 9.1 percent of the health expenditures in the U.S. Another study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered that $48 billion in yearly medical costs could be saved with improved diets. As a result, the legislation of the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was enacted in 1990 as a response to the concern on obesity. The policy stipulated that “Nutritional Facts” be listed on the label of processed food products, including information on standard serving size, calories, and elements like cholesterol and sodium.

“While we find that nutritional label use can reduce BMI, the magnitudes of the effects by gender suggest that nutritional labels may not by themselves reverse the tide of increasing obesity rates in the U.S.,” explained the authors in the report. “However, they can be used as tools to educate Americans about the availability of nutritional information on the products they buy in supermarkets. They can also be used as complements to other weight-loss or obesity-reducing government-supported strategies or programs.”

The researchers hoped to better understand how reading labels could help reduce obesity, especially in the female demographic. The study included data from the annual National Health Interview Survey by the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC). The survey featured over 25,000 perspectives on eating, health and shopping habits.

“These findings imply that health education campaigns can employ nutritional labels as one of the instruments for reducing obesity,” the authors wrote in the report.

The team of investigators was also able to study the implications of reading labels for various demographics. For example, the researchers discovered that more females than males paid attention to product labels. There were also different results in various ethnic groups, such as a black female and a white female´s take from paying attention to food labels. Furthermore, the smoking population read the labels even less than the other two groups.

“This finding has important public health implications considering that nutritional labels can be used as one of the instruments in combating obesity. Targeting by gender may also be useful in increasing the effectiveness of policy programs, since men are generally less active on reading labels and also have less pronounced label effects on BMI. Outreach campaigns related to nutritional label use can be most effective by promoting the use of nutritional labels among females, who are very often the primary grocery shoppers and food planners,” noted the authors in the paper.

The scientists also noted the availability of nutritional information at restaurants and food convenience stores.

“The availability of nutritional information in food away from home establishments like restaurants has been discussed by policy makers to help consumers make healthier food choices when eating out. Part of the health care reform bill that recently became law in the U.S. requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to list calorie content information for standard menu items on restaurant menus and menu boards. Hence, future studies should evaluate the influence of nutritional labeling in the food away from home market on dietary behavior and obesity,” concluded the authors in the article.