NEW YORK — People who read food labels such as the Nutrition Facts Panel, ingredient lists or serving size are more likely to have healthier diets than those who do not read labels, according to a new study appearing in the August issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

The study, “Food label use and its relation to dietary intake among U.S. adults,” was conducted by researchers at the Program in Nutrition, Department of Health and Behavior Studies, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, in New York, and included analysis of data from the 2005-06 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Data was collected through the use of in-home interviews that asked participants how often they used the Nutrition Facts Panel, list of ingredients, serving size information or health claims when deciding to buy a food product with possible responses being “always,” “most of the time,” “sometimes,” “rarely,” “never,” or “never seen.” For those participants who reported use, follow-up questions were asked relating specifically to total energy, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, fiber or sugars. The average of two nonconsecutive 24-hour dietary recalls then was used to obtain nutrient estimations.

According to the researchers, nearly 62% of participants said they read the Nutrition Facts Panel, 52% said they examine the list of ingredients, 47% read the serving size and 44% review health claims at least sometimes when deciding whether to buy a food product.

In addition, the findings indicated women, participants with greater education, and participants with higher income were more likely to report using the food label and have been observed consistently in previous studies.

Non-Hispanic whites reported more frequent use of food labels, which is inconsistent with previous research showing no observed differences in food label reading by race or ethnicity, and participants with limited English language skills had greatly reduced rates of label use, whereas label use among foreign-born participants was found to increase with duration of residency in the sample.

There were significant differences between label readers and non-readers in their intake of total calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, dietary fiber and sugars, the researchers said. Users of the Nutrition Facts Panel were found to have lower reported values for total energy, total fat, saturated fat and sugars; users of the list of ingredients had lower values for total fat, saturated fat and sodium; users of the serving size had lower values for total energy, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sugars; and users of the health claims had lower values for total fat and saturated fat. Reported dietary fiber intake was found to be higher among label users for all sections of the food label.

“If food labels are to have greater influence on public health rates of use will likely need to be increased among U.S. adults,” researchers said, adding that “Low rates of label use also suggest that national campaigns or modification of the food label may be needed to reduce the proportion of the population not using this information.”

The researchers identified several potential changes to the current label, including:

• Using boldface type for energy information;
• Reporting the total nutrient intake for foods likely to be consumed in a single sitting;
• Using more intuitive labeling that requires less cognitive processing such as a red, yellow and green “traffic light” sign on the front of the label.
“The food label alone is not expected to be sufficient in modifying behavior ultimately leading to improved health outcomes but may be used by individuals and dietetics practitioners as a valuable and motivating tool in our efforts to combat obesity and diet-related chronic disease,” the researchers said.