Wetenschap - 8 maart 2001

People who read food labels have healthier diet

People who read food labels have healthier diet

Since the American government made it obligatory for food manufacturers to label their products, Americans are eating a more healthy diet. The labels that have the most effect are those with health claims, such as 'low fat', 'low cholesterol' and 'low fibre'. Dr Rudy Nayga, assistant professor of agricultural economics at Texas A & M University has shown that labels have an effect on eating habits.

The eating habits of Americans are 'disastrous' according to the experts. "About half of the population is overweight," stated Nayga during a seminar at the Mansholt Institute in Wageningen on 22 February. "Diseases which are the result of a bad diet cost the United States 250 billion dollars each year." In 1994, after a number of years of discussion between government, researchers and the food industry, the government introduced a law making it obligatory for manufacturers to publish nutritional information on the product packaging: the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act. The information varied from listing ingredients to including information on nutritional value (number of calories, amount of cholesterol and salt). The law also provided guidelines indicating when a product could have a label with a health claim, such as 'low fat' or 'low sodium', and when not. "In doing this the government hoped to encourage Americans to eat more healthily, and to encourage the food industry to develop more healthy products."

Scores

In order to measure how healthy the diet of Americans was, Nayga used an instrument developed by the department of agriculture. A person who eats a 'healthy' diet according to this method, scores 80 or more. The average American scores somewhere just above 60. Listing ingredients had the least effect on people's eating habits. Those who read them increased their score by an average of just 3.5. The health claims were the most effective. The people who read these raised their scores by 6.1 points.

Human lives

Although the labeling act has been in force for 7 years, Americans are still eating badly. Only twelve percent have a diet that can be called healthy. Nevertheless Nayga does not consider the labelling act, which has cost the food industry 2.3 billion dollars, a failure. "The act has probably resulted in Americans eating more healthily, which means that less people have become sick. How do you express that in dollars? You can't express human lives in money terms."

Nayga will be at the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour Group of Wageningen University until the end of June.

Willem Koert

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