Do food labels matter? Do consumers actually read them? How useful they are for making healthier choices? A new study suggests food labels do matter, and that consumers who read them weigh less than those who don’t bother.
Food labels, fat, calories and consumers
The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, will require all chain restaurants to post calorie counts on it’s menu boards. McDonald’s, the world’s largest purveyor of fat and calories, is leading the way by announcing that calories will start to accompany its selections this month.
The restaurant industry has questioned whether knowing how calorie counts for hamburgers will make a difference for consumers. But when it comes to shopping in supermarkets, a new study has shown that reading food labels can help consumers maintain a healthy weight.
Maintaining a healthier weight
In a study on the relationship between reading food labels and obesity published in the journal Agricultural Economics, an international team of researchers analyzed data from the National Health Interview Survey, an annual poll conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They worked with 25,640 observations that were collected on health status, eating habits and shopping tendencies.
The researchers determined the percentage of respondents who said they read the nutrition facts on food labels when they shop and those who don’t. Then they established a relationship between label reading and body mass index (BMI).
Based on the representative population sample, overall 74 percent of women in the U.S. and 58 percent of men say they read food labels. The greatest difference in weight was found in women. Those who read food labels had a BMI 1.76 points lower on average than those women who didn’t. That’s an average of nine pounds lighter. The difference in BMI associated with label reading for American men was much less—just 0.12 points.
Socioeconomic, lifestyle factors
Socioeconomic differences also emerged between consumers who read labels and those who don’t. City dwellers (49 percent) read food labels the most. People with a high school (40 percent) or university education (17 percent) were also more likely to be concerned about nutrition facts. Smokers also reported less concern about reading labels. Researchers suggested this could reflective of a smoker’s unhealthy lifestyle overall.
Trusting the food supply
The research suggests food labels are a good thing and reading them is a good idea. But once upon a time, not too long ago, nutrition facts on food labels were rare, along with obesity, diabetes and heart disease. But as the American food supply became increasingly processed with unhealthy ingredients, consumer activists demanded more transparency.
Today, the most nutritious foods in the store, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, don’t have nutrition labels. If food companies weighed the nutrition of their products as importantly as making them cheaply as possible for maximum profits, perhaps we could trust the food supply more and food labels would be a non-issue.