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Students Unaffected By Nutritional Information

July 2, 2011

College and university students are unlikely to alter their diets, even if nutritional information is readily available in school cafeterias, a team of researchers from Ghent University in Belgium has discovered.

In their study, Christine Hoefkens, Dr. Wim Verbeke, and their colleagues surveyed 224 individuals, each of whom regularly ate at two of the school’s cafeterias and logged their menu choices over the course of several days, according to a Reuters Health report on the experiment.

“Growing concern over the relation between out-of-home eating and overweight has triggered the use of point-of-purchase (POP) nutrition information when eating out of the home,” the authors wrote as part of their abstract. “The objective of this study was to increase the proportion of consumed meals that comply with recommendations for energy, saturated fat, sodium, and vegetable content by 5%.”

The research team then added posters to both cafeterias, rating culinary offerings based on their health factor from zero stars (least healthy) to three starts (healthiest). Six months later, they asked the study participants to again log their menu selections, and found that there was, according to Reuters’ Kerry Grens, “no difference in the number of meals eaten from each star category.”

The results have been published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

“Although it is important to inform consumers about the nutritional characteristics of the food offered, providing nutrition information in less healthy food environments such as fast-food restaurants is unlikely to alter consumers’ food choices,” Hoefkens and Verbeke said in an email sent to Grens.

Currently, several cities in the US require fast-food restaurants to include calorie content and other nutritional information on their menus, and the 2010 health care reform law will make that a federal law for such eateries, as well as for vending machines. The Ghent University study would appear to question the effectiveness of such a measure; however, there are other factors involved, as Grens points out.

In the study, “70 percent of the meals earned zero or one stars, both before and after the labels. The students’ meal choices mirrored the proportion of offerings in each star category.”

Taking that into consideration, Dr. Gail Kaye, the director of Ohio State University’s nutrition program, told Reuters that, in Grens’ words, “menu labels might still work to encourage healthier eating–it’s just that they [students] need to be paired with a healthier-leaning menu.”

In addition to Hoefkens and Verbeke, Carl Lachat, Patrick Kolsteren, and John Van Camp are credited as authors of the study, which was accepted by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on May 18 and first published on June 15.

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