Clearer labelling the key to better diets

Related tags Nutrition

Better labelling of food products could help significantly improve
the quality of diets, according to research published in the
Journal of Consumer Affairs.

Better labelling of food products could help significantly improve the quality of diets, according to research published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs. Researchers Sung-Yong Kim, Rodolfo M. Nayga, Jr. and Oral Capps, Jr. examined the impact of label use on diet quality following the passage of the US Nutrition Labelling and Education Act (NLEA) in 1990. Only about 12% of Americans are eating healthily, according to the USDA, and even though more Americans are now aware of the importance of good nutrition, most diets still fall short of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Risks associated with nutritional imbalances in the composition of diet have been reported to be the most significant. For example, four of the top 10 causes of death in the US - heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes - are associated with poor diets. Diet-related health conditions cost society an estimated $250 billion annually in medical costs and lost productivity. The health care savings from improved and better diets could amount to an estimated $3.6 billion to $21 billion per year. During the last two decades, product labelling has become a popular policy tool, particularly with respect to the provision of nutrition and health information. The passage of the NLEA was expected to provide substantial improvements in the diet quality by helping consumers make healthier food choices. The NLEA allows for five sources of information to appear on food labels: nutritional panel, serving size, nutrient content claim, list of ingredients and health claims. According to the researchers, food labels provide measurable benefits by improving diet quality of Americans by as much as four to six points on a 100-point Healthy Eating Index (HEI) scale developed by the USDA. The HEI is used as a performance measure for the effectiveness of nutrition intervention effort to improve dietary behaviours. It is composed of 10 components. The first five measure the degree to which a person's diet conforms to the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid serving recommendations for the five major food groups - grains, vegetables, fruits, milk and meat. Components six and seven measure total fat and saturated fat consumption as a percentage of total food energy intakes. Components eight and nine measure total cholesterol and sodium intake, and component 10 examines variety in a person's diet. Each component has a possible range of zero to 10. The maximum overall score then is 100. High component scores indicate intakes close to recommended ranges or amounts; low component scores indicate less compliance with recommended ranges or amounts. Among nutritional panels, serving sizes, nutrient content claims, list of ingredients and health claims, the use of health claims on food labels provides the highest level of improvement in diet quality, researchers found. Specifically: The probability of using label information, except on health claims, increases with income, while the probability of using label information on nutritional panels, serving sizes and health claims decreases with age. Males are less likely to use the five types of label information than females. Education is significant and positively related to label use. Thus, people with at least some college education are more likely to use the five types of label information than those who do not have a college education. Individuals who reside in non-metro areas are less likely to use labels than those who reside in suburban areas. Individuals who are on a special diet are more likely to use labels than individuals who are not on a special diet. Individuals who are more informed about the link between diet and health also are more likely to use nutritional labels. This result is consistent with the argument that poorly informed consumers tend to underestimate the marginal benefit of label use. Individuals who participate in the Food Stamps Program are less likely to use label information than others. Individuals who agreed with the statement that reading food labels takes more time than they can spare are less likely to use label information. Major food shoppers are more likely to use label information when shopping than others. The household's major food shopper, then, can potentially influence the quality of the diet of individual household members just from the types of foods he or she decides to purchase. Age of label users and non-label users is positively related to HEI for all types of label information. African-American label users and non-label users have HEIs that are about three or four points lower than the HEIs of Caucasian label users and non-label users, respectively. Label users of other races on all types of label information except nutritional panel and health claims, however, have higher HEIs than Caucasian label users. For non-label users, except list of ingredient labels, other races also have higher HEI than Caucasians. Employed label users have lower HEIs than unemployed label users. The reason for this result is not clear. However, it is possible that the diet quality of employed label users is lower because they do not have as much time as the unemployed to spend on food shopping to make the more appropriate decisions regarding the quality of foods they need to buy. Non-label users from central cities have HEIs that are about two points higher than non-label users from suburban areas. On the other hand, label users (except serving sizes and health claims) from non-metro areas have HEIs that are one point lower than label users from suburban areas. Regionally, label and non-label users from the South have lower HEIs than those from other regions. People with at least some college education have higher HEI than people with no college education regardless of label use and label information type. Well-educated consumers may better understand the label information and effect of food on health and may be better aware of effective methods to improve their diets, and education may be associated with a preference for healthier diets. The results show that label use, indeed, has a positive effect in improving diet quality. Improvements in diet quality as measured by the HEI range from 3.5 points (list of ingredients) to 6.1 points (health claims), depending on the type of label information. The researchers concluded that these findings could be used by the government as a guide in the design of better consumer education programs by targeting the type of nutritional information that will most likely have an effect on consumers' diet quality.

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