The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) (1,2) represents an important step forward in the quest for a healthful lifestyle. This act was written to provide consumers with accurate and truthful labeling on many food products (3). The designers of the 1990 NLEA label intended the Nutrition Facts label to be a useful tool in applying the principles of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (4) and the Food Guide Pyramid (5). Through the nutrition label, information is provided to the public about key nutrients that are of public health concern. Consumers may use the information provided to make informed food choices and to compare the nutrient content of different foods (6).
An important part of the NLEA is education of the public in the use of the 1990 NLEA label in planning a healthful diet. A multiyear educational campaign began in 1991 that included educational efforts involving the mass media, classroom, and written materials (6-14). The main focus of this campaign was to increase awareness of the 1990 NLEA label and to teach consumers how to use the label to make good food choices (9).
Several studies have investigated specific knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors of consumers in relation to the old food label. Some studies have shown that most consumers read food labels and are concerned about health and nutrition (15-19). Others have found that consumers do not comprehend or correctly use the information on food labels (20-25).
One study (26) using 1990 NLEA labels investigated whether people who read nutrition labels eat more healthful diets than those who do not. Findings indicated a positive relationship between patients' label reading and dietary practices. The 1995 Shopping for Health survey (27) showed that 61% of consumers said they read the nutrition label when shopping for a food for the first time, whereas in the 1997 Shopping for Health survey (28), that number was 54%. The 1997 survey also indicated that consumers overwhelmingly looked most often for fat information on the label.
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College students represent an appropriate portion of the US population to study because they will benefit from a lifetime of healthful eating. Students are often away from home for the first time and are making more decisions about their diets than ever before. They are in the process of implementing lifelong eating patterns.
Food consumption patterns of college students are of concern because students tend to skip meals (29), eat diets excessively low in energy (30), and avoid certain types of nutritious foods (31). Female students often consume intakes of calcium, iron, and vitamin A below the Recommended Dietary Allowance (32). Both male and female college students eat high-fat diets (33-35).
Our study examined the impact of the Nutrition Facts label on college students. Of particular interest was whether students think the label is a useful tool, how they use it, and if label-reading education is associated with label use. The purpose of the study was to examine knowledge, attitudes, and self-reported behaviors of college students regarding the NLEA labels and the relationships among these factors. Knowledge questions assessed students' knowledge of basic facts needed for effective consumer use of the 1990 NLEA labels and their ability to obtain specific information from labels. Attitude questions assessed students' attitudes toward the food labels in such areas as truthfulness and accuracy. Self-reported behaviors were divided into 2 types: those related to general use of the label and those related to specific items that appear on the Nutrition Facts label.
The study surveyed 208 college students at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau. The subjects were enrolled in a basic …