Nutrition Knowledge, Gender, and Food Label Use

Article excerpt

This paper empirically explores the relationship between nutrition knowledge, gender, and food label use. The econometric approach treats both nutrition knowledge and label use as endogenous variables when estimating the model for food label use. The results suggest that nutrition knowledge does not have an effect on label use, confirming the weak link hypothesis between knowledge and behavior. Gender effect is mainly due to differences in nutrition knowledge levels.

Researchers estimate that poor diets account for over 300,000 deaths a year and that about 35 percent of cancer deaths are attributable to poor diet in the U.S. (Blaylock, Smallwood, and Variyam 1996). Consequently, in an effort to make nutrition information available to consumers, the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was implemented in 1994. The NLEA mandates that new regulations on nutrition labeling be placed on food packages. The objective is to provide consistent, understandable, and usable labels that can help consumers make healthier food choices (Nayga 1996). If this goal is to be attained, it is essential to determine which type of consumer uses or does not use the labels. Understanding why and how consumers utilize food labels is a prerequisite to designing food labeling regulations, improving public health, and enhancing the profitability of the food industry.

Economists have long recognized the importance of consumer information and knowledge with regard to consumer behavior (Pauly and Satterthwaite 1981; Kenkel 1990). However, there is considerable debate about the influence of nutrition knowledge on food purchase behavior. Most Americans are familiar with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines but seem to have little understanding of how to translate the nutrition guidelines into healthy eating practices. Despite intensive nutrition education efforts and media exposure, total fat intake has not changed. It is, therefore, becoming increasingly clear that nutrition knowledge may not directly predict dietary behavior because those with more knowledge do not necessarily change their behavior (Sapp 1991; Shepherd and Stockley 1987; Shepherd and Towler 1992). This may be why intervention programs aimed at increasing nutrition knowledge or awareness, such as supermarket point-of-purchase programs, seem to have had limited impact (Rodgers, Kessler, Port noy, and Potosky 1994).

Several studies also have alluded to the apparent disparity between the health behaviors of males and females. Nayga (1997) reported that males are less likely to perceive nutrition as important when food shopping than females. An earlier study also revealed that males are less likely to use food labels than females (Nayga 1996). A possible explanation for these patterns is that females find risk-reducing search strategies (i.e., food label use) more useful than males (Mitchell and Boustani 1993). However, there has been no other concrete explanation for these patterns. The purpose of this article is to test the proposition that gender's effect, found in previous studies, may be due to differences in nutrition knowledge levels.

The relationships among nutrition knowledge, gender, and food label use are presently not well understood. This study fills this void by empirically investigating these relationships. The objective of this article is to explore the relationship among nutrition knowledge, gender, and food label use and to identify some of the determinants of nutrition knowledge. A new direct measure of nutrition knowledge is used, based on responses to survey questions. The econometric approach treats both nutrition knowledge and label use as endogenous variables when estimating the model for food label use.

EMPIRICAL APPROACH

To achieve the objectives of this study, the economic model of information search, introduced by Stigler (1961), is used as a framework to model nutrition label use. …