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Time to teach your kids about nutrition labels

A new study says that teens either don’t read nutrition labels or ignore them. Phil Lempert urges parents to take action.

Health officials, concerned about increasing obesity rates among Americans, have long hoped that the addition of nutrition labels to packaged foods — and campaigns to get people to read them — would lead to better eating habits.

When it comes to teenagers, it appears their efforts are wasted. Not surprised? OK, so put it down to the carelessness of youth.

But here is something that may come as more of a shock: According to a study published recently in the Journal of Adolescent Health, teen boys who actually do read the labels tend to eat more protein and fat than those who don’t.  The researchers speculate this may be because boys are looking to eat more protein (and the fat that tends to come with it) to build muscles and thus amp up their body image.

The study, which was funded by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, focused on the relationship between reading nutrition labels and the percentage calorie intake from fat in 301 adolescents aged 10 to 19.

The participants were also measured for their Body Mass Index, which determines the level of fat in their bodies. Dietary fat intake in U.S. adolescents has been found to be about 33.5 percent, which is at the higher end of the recommended 20 percent to 35 percent range for daily fat intake (depending on a person’s metabolism).

In the sample of girls, fat intake did not differ by frequency of nutrition label reading.

In two adult studies (American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 1997, and the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 1999) there was found to be a correlation between increased nutrition label use and a lower intake of dietary fat.

This new research is consistent with the 1997 study (published in the journal Adolescence), which found that nutrition labels, as compared with taste, habit and price, factor very low in how adolescents determine their food choices.

In the most recent study, almost 80 percent of those surveyed reported “sometimes” or “always” reading labels; a proportion similar to that found in the two adult studies. The researchers also agreed with other studies that found a higher percentage of females read nutrition labels as compared to males.

What to do?
As we have seen, the good news is that nutrition labels can be a force for better eating habits. The bad, as detailed above, is that kids and teens tend to ignore them (or to use them in a way that was not intended). In addition, many shoppers continue to report that they want nutrition labels to be easier to understand.

Bottom line, if we really want to enhance the nutritional profile for our future generations, it’s going to take a lot more than just labels. Here are some suggestions:

  • Bring your kids with you when you shop for food.
  • When selecting a product for its health benefits, be sure to explain WHY you’ve selected that particular one and then “prove it” to your kids by comparing the Nutritional Facts label.
  • Have your kids select a new fruit or vegetable each week. Have them research it online, help you prepare it and, when it’s served, explain its specific health benefits to the family.
  • Set a daily nutrition guide for each family member — number of calories, grams of fat, carbohydrates, etc. And have each keep a written (or online) diary. Review each week’s results as a family.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent