COLLEGE STATION Consumers who read packaging labels on food are more likely to have healthier diets than those who do not, according to a preliminary study released by Texas A&M University. Still, the diets of many Americans do not get passing marks.
Dr. Rudy Nayga, assistant professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M, feels that the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act is achieving its purpose.
“Consumers’ use of food labels could actually improve their diet quality at a significant level if they use different aspects of (the labels),” Nayga said. “We analyzed the different types of information available on food packages, and we found that if consumers read the health statements or the health benefits on food packages, that would provide the most improvement in terms of diet quality.”
Nayga and his team of researchers are studying data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the effect of the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act on diet quality. The law enacted in 1994 updated the list of nutrients and ingredients on food packages, standardized serving sizes, defined nutrient content claims and standardized health claims and health benefit statements.
Nayga explained, “Before the implementation of the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act, we could find labels, like low-fat, low-cholesterol, on food packages, but there were no standardized definitions initially on what they meant. Consumers tended to get confused prior to 1994 on what those labels really meant.”
In this study, researchers used the USDA’s healthy eating index. The index represents the total of 10 different dietary components such as how a person’s diet conforms with the Food Guide Pyramid serving recommendations for grain, vegetable, fruit, milk and meat groups, total fat and saturated fat consumption as a percentage of total food energy intake, cholesterol and sodium intake, and the variety of a person’s diet. On a scale of zero to 100, a diet that ranks above 80 points is considered healthy. However, most Americans’ diets rank in the low 60s, Nayga said.
Even after the enactment of the law, only about 12 percent of Americans are eating what is considered by the USDA to be healthful diets, Nayga said. Four of the top 10 causes of death heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes are associated with poor diets.
Also, diet-related health conditions cost society $250 billion annually in medical costs and lost productivity at work, he added.
“We still have a lot of catching up to do in terms in improving the quality of our diets,” he said.
Texas A&M’s study also found that:
Females generally had a higher diet quality than males.
Those individuals who exercise more frequently tend to have higher diet quality than those who do not exercise regularly, even if they are not “label readers.”
Smokers have a lower diet quality than nonsmokers overall.
Major food shoppers are the most likely to use the food labels. Nayga said, “This was comforting to us because major food shoppers can have a tremendous impact on the quality of the diets of the household members.”
African-Americans tend to have a lower diet quality than other races, whether they are label users or not.
Residents of the southern United States also tend to have a lower diet quality than the rest of the nation.
The diet quality of employed individuals was lower than the diet quality of unemployed individuals. Nayga said, “I think it’s really hard to determine a possible reason for it, but it may be possible employed individuals tend to be much busier than the unemployed individuals and so they may not have the time to devote to using food labels while shopping.”
Nayga added, “One of the objectives of putting this act into law is to provide accurate information to consumers, and I think it’s doing that.”
Researchers plan to study USDA data from 1998 and 1999 to determine whether diets continue to improve, he added.
The study recently was awarded the 1999 Applied Consumers Economics award presented by the American Council on Consumer Interests.