Public Release: 

Teens Shop "Healthy", But Trust Label Claims Too Much

Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Penn. -- "Health concerns" play a significant role when teenagers shop at the supermarket but they, like their parents, still rely too heavily on "lite," "fat-free," "low cholesterol" front-of-the-label nutrition claims, a Penn State study has found.

Christine McCullum a Penn State graduate and her adviser Dr. Cheryl L. Achterberg, professor of nutrition and director of the Penn State Nutrition Center, found that a "health reason" was the second most common category of factors reported for food item selection by the 90 adolescent shoppers included in their study. Health came in second behind a category that included taste/personal preference, custom/habit and price/cost.

However, the teens made their decision about what choices are "healthy" based on front-of-the-label claims rather than the actual nutrition information on the back of the package or can.

Interviews with the young people after their shopping trips showed that they were five times more likely to use front label claims than nutrition labels.

The study included male and female high school students with an average age of 15 and both experienced and inexperienced shoppers. Girls were more likely than boys to use front-of-the-label nutrition claims. However, there were no significant differences between males and females and their use of nutrient labels on the back of the products they purchased.

The Penn State researchers report that a recent survey by Teenage Research Unlimited revealed that as high as 90 percent of teenagers (both boys and girls) shop for their families. They receive $19.2 billion for family food shopping and another $4 billion annually for their own food and snack purchases.

In their report in the journal, Adolescence, the researchers write, "A previous marketing survey conducted by Food and Beverage Marketing and Forecast Magazine in 1988 did not show that health-related factors played a significant role."

Achterberg says the fact that the Penn State researcher's study showed that teenagers were paying attention to health concerns was encouraging. However, the fact that they relied primarily on front-of-the-label claims indicated a need for educational programs that emphasize food shopping and label reading skills.

Achterberg added that the teenagers' reliance on front label claims is not unusual. Previous studies have shown that adult shoppers also rely on the claims. She says that both teenagers and adults may be put off using the nutrition labels by the math required to convert the serving size on the package to the actual amount consumed. Achterberg and colleagues are currently working on an "easy rule of thumb" to simplify adapting the serving size on the package to actual use.

The "easy rule of thumb" also should help shoppers to be more savvy about the front-of-the-label claims as well as to interpret the nutrition information on the back of the label. Achterberg notes that "When our data were collected, front-of-the-label claims were unreliable. Now, they are reliable sources of information but the adult public distrusts them."

The Penn State results on teenage shoppers are reported in the current (Spring 1997, Vol. 32, No. 125) issue of the journal, Adolescence, in a paper titled "Food Shopping and Label Use Behavior Among High School-Aged Adolescents." That report is based, in part, on McCullum's master's degree thesis.

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