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Consumers under 30 tune out nutrition labels, report says

by Laura Schocker
Oct 01, 2008


Photo courtesy the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Fifty-two percent of consumers under 30 reported checking the nutrition facts panel while shopping in 2005.

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In a world where Generation Y assigns labels to their food that range from low-carb or organic to sustainable or vegan, there’s one label they are turning to less and less—nutrition.

Fifty-two percent of adults under 30 reported checking the nutrition facts panel in 2005, 10 percent fewer than in 1995, according to a new study from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service in Washington D.C. This decrease is more than three times greater than occurred in the population at large.

“There’s only a limited amount of time that people spend shopping.  There’s a lot of information competing for people’s attention,” said Jessica Todd, lead author of the report and an economist with the Economic Research Service. “You don’t see what’s right in front of you.”

The government first mandated that nutrition information be included on foods in 1994 to ensure that people receive consistent and accurate information about what they’re eating. “The interest was in protecting the consumer,” Todd said.

One reason for the drop in attention from young people may be the increase in eating out, where people are less likely to have accurate nutrition information available, Todd suggested, adding that a new generation of consumers may be looking for their nutrition information on the Web instead of in the store.

When labels were first introduced, informational campaigns were used to introduce consumers to their uses and values. Yet more than a decade later, Todd suggested that the approach no longer feels new or urgent to buyers, especially those under 30 who may have missed the campaigns entirely. “It may be that people are just shifting where they’re getting their information from,” Todd said.

Alex Hattimer, a 24-year-old law student at the DePaul University College of Law, agreed with Todd. Hattimer, who only checks food labels for calories and protein—“That’s what keeps me running”—and skips over the ingredient list—“I’m too poor for that,”—said the novelty of food labels has worn off. “Ten years ago they were exciting and new and now we’re used to it,” he said.

But even if they may be less exciting than they used to be, consumers shouldn’t count out nutrition labels yet, said Anne Leavell, a dietitian with the Northwestern Medical Faculty Association, who was not involved in the study.

 “Reading and understanding nutrition fact labels can help maintain well balanced diets and healthy amounts of fats and calories,” she said.

Her advice for busy consumers is to look at the serving size first. Someone may think he is only consuming 110 calories in his cereal bowl, for instance, but the label is for a cup-size serving. So pouring two or three cups into the bowl can double or triple the amount of calories.

She also suggested taking a look at the percent daily values for each serving size, which is usually based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Generally, a daily value less than 5 percent is low, while more than 20 percent is high. The goal, Leavell explained, is to limit food with unhealthy amounts of trans fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol and favoring foods with fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Another way to save time shopping is to learn the lingo, Leavall suggested. For instance, if a food says “fat free” on the front, it has to have less than half a gram of fat per serving or a “good source of fiber” is something with 2.5-4.9 grams of fiber per serving. “Those can be kind of quick shortcuts to seeking out a healthy food,” she said.

Not all young people ignore the labels, though. “I look over every single thing before I eat it. I like to know what I’m eating,” said Brett Arends, 18, a freshman at Roosevelt University. “Most people make fun of me.”

But Arends gets the last laugh—the 5-foot-8-inch biology major has dropped from 200 to 160 pounds since he first started checking nutrition labels two years ago.