Food Shopping and Label Use Behavior among High School-Aged Adolescents

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Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) in 1990, a law requiring that virtually all foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) carry a food label. Although not mandated by the new law, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) also decided to develop complementary regulations that requires nutrition labeling on virtually all processed meat and poultry products. A voluntary nutrition labeling program for raw meat and poultry products has also been established. The NLEA also addresses serving size, use of nutrient descriptors (e.g., fat free), health claims, reference information, and label format. A unique aspect of the NLEA is its emphasis on consumer education (Office of the Federal Registrar, 1993). However, before effective educational efforts can be attempted, educators should understand how consumers make decisions about food choices and the role played by food labels in those choices. One high-risk group that needs to be evaluated in relation to its food choice behavior is adolescents.

Because of the increasing number of two-working parent families and single-parent households, the number of adolescents who are either doing food shopping for themselves or their families is increasing. A recent survey by Teenage Research Unlimited revealed that as many as 90% of teenagers (both boys and girls) shop for their families (Blumenthal, 1990) spending 4 billion dollars annually on food and snacks alone. In addition, teenagers receive an additional 19.2 billion dollars from their parents for family shopping (McNeal, 1992). Price, taste, brand name, the media, as well as parental and peer influence are only some of the factors influencing adolescents' food purchasing decisions (Blumenthal, 1990; Food and Beverage Marketing & Forecast Magazine, 1988; Rolls, 1988; Clancy-Hepburn, Heckey, & Nevill, 1974). Adolescents' food-purchasing habits may have an immediate as well as long-term impact on their behavior which in turn, may affect their health (i.e, susceptibility to acute and chronic disease) (National Research Council, 1989). Therefore, adolescents need to be taught appropriate food-shopping and label-reading skills.

Knowing if and how adolescents use nutrition-label information is important for developing appropriate food-shopping and label-reading education. However, it is not known whether adolescents use nutrition information when selecting foods. The Fifth Annual Food and Nutrition Survey (Food and Beverage Marketing & Forecast Magazine, 1988) reported that 70% of teenagers said it is at least "somewhat important" to know the ingredients of a food item. However, 49% of teenagers said they did not read labels and 51% of those who looked at the labels reported difficulty in deciphering the nutritional and ingredient information. Of those who did read food labels, calorie content was by far the most often sought information. When asked whether they felt that specific ingredients (e.g., sugar, salt, food additives and preservatives, artificial coloring and flavor) should be listed on a food package, at least 19% of teenagers were unsure (Blumenthal, 1990). A study by Thomsen, Terry, and Amos (1988) found that labels on food packages were adolescents' third most common source of nutrition information after television and parents/guardians. However, specific types of information that were used on the food label (e.g., nutrient labels or nutrition/health claims) were not examined.

Another consideration relevant to educational efforts is potential gender differences (Probart, 1993). Several studies have addressed this issue in relation to adolescents' dietary behavior and use of nutrition information. Vebrugge (1982) reported differences between male and female children/adolescents regarding health care utilization, nutrient intake, and preventive health behavior. Allen, Thombs, and Mahoney (1993) noted that gender was a significant factor in predicting dieters from nondieters. …


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