With McDonald’s, the world’s largest hamburger chain, preparing to post calorie information in its restaurants, a new international study finds reading the labels on food products is linked to obesity prevention, especially in women.
Researchers from the University of Santiago de Compostela, the Norwegian Institute for Agricultural Finance Research and the Universities of Tennessee and Arkansas found that female consumers who review food labels weigh nearly 9 pounds (4 kilograms) less than women who do not read the labels.
Specifically, researchers determined the body mass index of those consumers who read the labels is 1.49 points lower than those who never consider such information when doing their food shopping.
Researchers reviewed data from 25,640 American responders to the annual Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). This survey collects data on health and eating and shopping habits. These include various questions on whether participants read the nutritional information in supermarkets and how often.
“First we analyzed the profile of those who read the nutritional label when purchasing foods, and then we moved on to the relationship with their weight,” said María Loureiro, Ph.D., lead author of the study published in the Agricultural Economics journal.
“Obesity is one of the most serious health problems in the modern-day USA,” she said.
“The number of overweight or obese adults has risen over the years. From 2009 to 2010, more than a third (nearly 37 percent) of the adult population in this country were obese and in children and adolescents this figure rises to 17 percent.”
In terms of distribution, the highest obesity prevalence was recorded amongst the non-Latino black population (49.5 percent), Mexican-Americans (40.4 percent), Latinos (39.1 percent) and the non-Latino white population (34.3 percent), according to 2010 CDC data.
The team found interesting socioeconomic and ethnic differences between consumers who read labels and those who don’t.
Researchers also discovered that smokers reported less interest in reading labels, perhaps reflective of a lifestyle that involves less healthy habits. Urban survey responders (49 percent of the sample) were found to read nutritional information the most as were people with a high school or university education.
Remarkably, 58 percent of men either habitually or always read the information contained within nutritional labels while 74 percent of women attested to being label readers.
“In general, the associated impact is higher amongst women than men,” Loureiro said. On average, women who read the nutritional information have a body mass index of 1.48 points lower, whereas this difference is just 0.12 points in men.
The study also touches on significant ethnic differences. In this respect, the white female consumers saw the greatest reduction in body mass of around 1.76 points.
“We know that this information can be used as a mechanism to prevent obesity. We have seen that those who read food labels are those who live in urban areas, and those with high school and higher levels of education,” Loureiro said.
“As we would hope, therefore, campaigns and public policy can be designed to promote the use of nutritional labelling on menus at restaurants and other public establishments for the benefit of those who usually eat out.”