Knowledge and Usage of the Nutritional Fact Label Among College Students

By Scott Carlino

I. Introduction

Throughout the United States many students entering college are not inclined to reading Nutritional Fact labels, whether they understand them or not. The National and Education Label Act was meant to influence students to read and understand nutritional fact labels.  Today students are being made aware of the importance about reading Nutrition Food Labels, but studies have shown that although there are mandates placed upon food companies to supply a clear understanding of the ingredients in packaged foods, many have yet to understand them, let alone read these labels. It is becoming more obvious that college students, specifically, still have limitations in their understanding and acceptance of the nutrition fact label, which directly affects their attitudes and choices for proper nutrition. Even though nutritional information is widely available in the USA, it is still disregarded by up to 55% of Americans. The purpose of this research is to evaluate the student’s comprehension of nutrition fact labels and the pertinence towards their choices in food. In reviewing the literature, we found that many different studies and papers have been conducted on nutrition fact labeling, but fewer on college students specifically. The 1990 National Labeling and Education label has influenced college students through information that is provided to the public about key nutrients that are of public health concerns.

The successes of Label education efforts are also associated with better eating patterns among college students and their need of understanding nutrients rather than merely focusing on fat and caloric contents of foods. In reviewing these articles the relationship between them is not necessarily the lack of their knowledge, but rather the lack of an understanding of the information presented on food labels and college student’s attitude when it comes to food choices. Within the studies, researchers were looking at such things as the impact of nutrition fact labels on college students, in particular, the interest of whether the students think the label is useful or if an education in label-reading is positively or negatively associated with label use or adherence.

There were two significant articles related to this research that used different approaches in gathering their data. Marietta, Welshimer, and Anderson, 1999, used a non experimental research design using a survey, while Misra, 2007, used a model that sought to assess the relationships among different variables such as age, sex, and prior nutrition education.

“College students represent an appropriate portion of the US population to study because they benefit from the lifetime of healthful eating, and since they are usually away from home for the first time and are making more decisions about their diets than ever before, most of their choices in foods are not always the correct one.” Most of the students that were part of the study felt as if the advertising for “low fat” or “high fiber” on a package were not truthful and therefore half of the students (48.3%) used the nutritional facts labels at least sometimes to fit a healthy diet into their lifestyles. Today’s obesity rates are higher than ever with 1/3 of adolescents and 2/3 of adults being obese. The number one killer in America today is heart disease (which directly relates to obesity) and cancer is next, leading to the fact that it is crucial for our college students to understand the significance between nutritionally and non-nutritionally dense foods and nutrient contents. Point-of-Purchase information has become a goal within college campuses, in the hopes to influence and provide nutrition information on foods in order to assist students in making smarter choices. It is believed that through intervention and education, college students would have a better environment and interaction with food label and their food of choice.

It is also important to understand how this understanding of food labels is accepted around the world. This way, we could compare that information with our own domestic research to advance in curing this epidemic of obesity. In Europe, food companies place more general or useful information about a product, for example a “color-coded indicator of nutrient level”, on the front of the package, and leave the more detailed information on the back. This way, the general public could get a basic understanding of how a certain nutrient or vitamin benefits or harms you, without the use of technical words that might confuse the average consumer. Moreover, in Canada, we see how they receive their information from various sources: product labels, print media, friends, relatives, colleagues, electronic media, family physicians and dietitians. This is based upon a “Tracking Trends Survey” conducted in 1989. Although it is a while back, this information is still vital because it helps us understand that there are many ways to educate an individual. In addition, college students have access to all of the options aforementioned, so this would be a great way to educate. Asia, however, is a little further back when it comes to the population’s general knowledge on affects of nutrients and their reading of food labels. This could be, in part, because of some of their “2,000-year-old Asian traditions of consuming specific foods to influence a particular health/disease state” and they don’t know necessarily why they take it, they just know it is good for you. Therefore, based on this research, our hypothesis is that with nutritional education, and the right attitude towards food labeling, would contribute ones understanding of nutrients and food intake among young adults/college students.

II. Methodology

Our selected body of study was steered towards 40 random college students at Montclair State University and our interest on whether or not these students understood how to read a nutritional food label. Our primary focus was to determine what behaviors students have towards the foods they choose to eat and if anything would change that behavior: how often do they look at food labels when choosing foods? And furthermore what particular part of the food label did they focus on that determined their final decision. Our independent variable is the knowledge that the student has in regards to nutrition fact labels and our dependent variable is the relation of that knowledge to food choice and food habits. The survey consisted of several descending and qualitative questions with a nutritional fact label shown along with questions of understanding.

The nutritional fact label was given to see if students understood what daily value (DV %) meant, if they knew how to find out what fat content this particular label had and other operational definition recognition that are commonalities on food labels of everyday products. The assumption of no knowledge base was initially given in order to receive a clear understanding of the student’s understanding of the label. Another assumption given was that students living on campus might differ in their nutritional habits and patterns – such as, cooking meals as opposed eating at restaurants and cafeteria food – as opposed to ones that commute, and of course, we had to assume some students had a general nutritional base due to nutrition having significant importance in our daily lives, and there is a general nutrition elective in the Montclair State University’s curriculum.

Our research design was very simple. First, we used a pretesting method to assess the basic knowledge of the participant by showing them a sample food label and asking questions about that food. Second, we had them answer the seven other non open-ended questions, which gave us an understanding of how they put into practice their nutritional knowledge. Our sample was 40 students at Montclair State University from all walks of life. Some surveys were handed out in dorms, others in the gym, and some even at the work place. This way we could get a more broad range of individuals and, in turn, have more accurate results. This method would be described as simple random sampling, because we chose areas where there were MSU students and all individuals participating in the survey had to be from MSU; an example of the survey handed out can be found in the appendix of this paper after the references. The information, after being collected, was put through an SPSS program and through that, we had charts, graphs and standard deviations detailing the results of our study, which is in the following few pages.

III. Discussion and Conclusion

The survey consisted of 40 Montclair State University students. There were 4 freshmen students (40%); 10 sophomore students (25%); 14 junior students (35%), and 11 senior students (27.5), and one graduate student (2.5%). On reviewing the survey taken by the students they had to answer questions on the information given to them on a nutritional fact label.  As we measured their answers, the mean of incorrect answers was .09, the mode was 0 and midpoint was .5. The standard deviation was 1.333.

We came to find that students who cooked at home, read the nutrition fact labels less compared to students whom lived on campus, thus the commuting students answered correctly on the questions asked on the survey regarding the information on the nutrition fact labels. However, the direct relationship between how many times a student reads a food label and their understanding of the facts given is indirectly proportioned to their understanding of the facts on the nutrition label, ultimately concluding that their understand is still unclear. However, the students that live on campus read nutritional fact labels more often and in result they had more incorrect answers.

The other sector of our survey assessed the student’s importance of the nutritional content of their food. The answer choices were 1. Not at all:  2. moderately serious; 3. Very serious. Nine students answered “not at all” which implied that they didn’t either care or understand the nutritional content of their food. Twenty-four student’s answers were “Moderately Serious,” and the other seven were “Very Serious” about the nutritional content of their food.  Overall most people are aware of the contents of their food and make their food choices based on the macronutrients that are on the nutritional fact labels.

This study needs to be revisited in more depth for the limitations are on the types of food that students eat, if they have any beliefs on the food that they eat due to religion, culture, etc., and if they are economically aware of how food is processed. One’s attitude is a major magnitude on their understanding as well. The findings in this study are based on other studies that have been done previously, and that there is a constant need to educate and have tools available to individuals in order to increase their knowledge and understanding of not only the nutritional fact labels, but also what they choose to eat, and have them think of why they are eating that particular food rather than the primary reason of “it tastes good.” I believe that there should be clearer and concise measure that needs to be taken with individuals from a young age so that they grow up with the understanding of food and nutrition. Just as we are taught our ABC’s in kindergarten, we should be taught the basics of food, and how they rate on a scale of “good to bad;” for better lack of words.

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