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Nutrition labels linked to healthier eating among US teens, new research flags

#Nutrition labels linked to healthier eating among US teens, new research flags

07 Feb 2024 — In a new study, using Nutrition Facts labels is associated with healthy eating habits among eighth and 11th-grade students in Texas, US. However, the authors also caution that a limited proportion of students use such labels to inform food choices.

Nutrition Facts labels, used on packaged foods regulated by the FDA since 1990, provide information on serving size, calories and nutrients, such as calcium, fiber, total fat, cholesterol and sodium. The label information lets consumers compare food items to make healthier choices.

In 2016, the labels were updated to present serving sizes and calories in a larger and bolder font, require added sugars to be included in grams and Daily Value share and have new scientific information on the link between diet and chronic diseases.

“With recent changes in Nutrition Facts labels, which make them easier to read and comprehend, this is a great example of how higher-level changes in policy and environment can promote positive health behaviors among adolescents,” says lead author Christopher Pfledderer, Ph.D., assistant professors in the department of health promotion and behavioral sciences at the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health.

“Even something that seems small may have a big impact on health and well-being,” he underscores.

The team calls for public health efforts to improve nutrition literacy and encourage nutrition label use among secondary school students in the US.

Nutrition label use
For the study published in Nutrients, the research team analyzed links between label use and eating behavior in 4,730 students who participated in the 2019-2020 Texas School Physical Activity and Nutrition (SPAN) survey.

Participants reported the level of nutrition label use in food decision-making and their previous day’s consumption of 26 foods, of which 13 were healthy and 13 were unhealthy. The research team scored the foods through a SPAN healthy eating index and a healthy and unhealthy foods index.

While only 11% reported always or almost always using nutrition labels to make food choices, this group had significantly higher odds of consuming healthy foods, such as baked meat, nuts, brown or whole grain bread, vegetables, whole fruit and yogurt.

At the same time, nutrition labels reduced the chance of consuming unhealthy foods, including chips, cake, candy and soda, compared to students who never or almost never used the labels.

The research finds that Nutrition Facts label usage was significantly associated with SPAN healthy eating and healthy food index scores and negatively associated with the unhealthy foods index score calculated.

Magnifying glass on top of a Nutrition Facts label. Nutrition Facts labels provide information on serving size, calories and nutrients, such as calcium, fiber, total fat, cholesterol and sodium.Improving nutrition literacy
The researchers conclude that their findings align with the notion that “nutrition labels serve as valuable and practical tools guiding adolescents toward making more balanced and nutritious food choices.” The study illustrates the potential benefits of improving nutrition label literacy.

The limited reported use of the labels further underscores this need to improve nutrition literacy. Nearly 28% of students reported sometimes using nutrition labels, and 61% of participants said they never or almost never used the labels to make food choices.

“This study suggests an opportunity for school-based nutrition education or social media campaigns aimed at secondary students,” comments senior author Deanna Hoelscher, Ph.D., professor in health promotion at the School of Public Health in Austin, Texas.

“Teaching students about nutrition label use can help improve dietary intake, which is important for preventing chronic diseases both now and in the future.”

Looking at future studies, the authors suggest exploring the prevalence of nutrition label use among adolescents and younger populations at a broad level and how usage is linked with dietary behaviors and meaningful health outcomes such as overweight and obesity. Such research may inform obesity-related behavioral interventions for teens.

Food labels
The EU announced the adoption of mandatory nutrition labeling in 2022. Still, due to legislation, member states still need to make a front-of-pack label, such as the widely used Nutri-Score label, compulsory.

Nutrition Insight discussed the potential EU-wide adoption of this label with Serge Hercberg, professor of nutrition at the faculty of medicine at Sorbonne Paris North University, whose work forms the basis of the Nutri-Score.

In the UK, developments are underway to restrict unhealthy food and drink adverts in some local authorities. However, nationwide regulation on junk food bans has been postponed to 2025 in England.

Meanwhile, Innova Market Insights data indicates that 62% of consumers globally look at health claims or labels while purchasing a product. Also, research suggests that using “high in” nutrition symbols on food may improve consumer diets and reduce diet-related diseases.

By Jolanda van Hal

This feature is provided by Packaging Insights’s sister website, Nutrition Insight.

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