Adolescents who read the nutrition facts labels on food packages aren't necessarily eating healthier diets than those who don't. That's according to a recent Agricultural Research Service-funded study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
The study was conducted by Terry T.-K. Huang, an epidemiologist specializing in preventive medicine, and colleagues. Huang led the study while serving as a research associate at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, Mass. He now is an assistant professor at Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition in Boston.
The researchers surveyed 300 boys and girls aged 10 to 19, primarily Caucasian and African-American. The adolescents were asked whether they read nutrition labels "sometimes," "always," or "never." Also, each volunteer's body mass index and dietary fat intake were assessed. More than 56 percent of the participants reported sometimes reading nutrition labels, nearly 22 percent reported always reading nutrition labels and nearly 22 percent reported never reading them.
A higher fat intake was associated with the boys who always read nutrition labels, but not so for the girls who read the labels. The researchers speculate that a desire among boys to "beef up" could lead them to seek more protein and, in the process, consume more fat. No differences in nutrition-label reading were found across ethnicities, but African-Americans consumed more calories from fat than Caucasians.
Because early dietary practices may play a significant role in health and disease later in life, the study's authors noted that more research is needed to evaluate the relationship between reading nutrition labels and dietary intake among younger populations.
Based on this preliminary study, the authors recommend that educators and parents help kids learn how to use the information on nutrition facts labels more effectively. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated its online resource, "How To Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label," in November 2004.
ARS is the chief scientific research agency of USDA.