Understanding Food Label Use by College Students

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Rouhani, Ayma Martha
Desmond, Sharon
Researchers have found food labels can be used to promote healthier food choices leading to improved nutrition and decreased risk of chronic disease (Silverglade and Heller, 2010 Drichoutis, Lazaridis, and Nayga, 2006; Kim, Nayga and Capps, 2000; Taylor and Wilkening, 2008; Todd and Variyam, 2008). However, the actual use of food labels by the public must increase (Grunert and Wills, 2007; Ollberding, Wolf, Contento, 2011). One age group important to focus on when promoting label use is college students, given: 1) their overall poor nutrition, 2) that many are making independent decisions about what foods to purchase and eat for the first time (Deshpande, D. Basil, and Z. Basil, 2009; Marietta, Welshimer, and Long Andersons, 1999; Misra, 2007), and 3) they are in the process of establishing lifelong eating habits (Deshpande, D. Basil, and Z. Basil, 2009; Marietta et al., 1999). In this study, in-depth interviews (N=15) were conducted with college students to qualitatively explore reasons why they used or did not use food labels, factors that motivated or inhibited food label use and perceptions regarding the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) new proposed food label. Theoretical constructs (social norms, decisional balance, self-efficacy) were used to inform interview items and the data analysis plan. An inductive data analysis approach was used to identify recurring and salient themes and subthemes to draw conclusions about college students’ perceptions related to food label use. The two most salient themes that emerged were issues related to self-efficacy in terms of understanding the current food label, and negative social norms around using food labels. Reactions and perceptions regarding the new food label were positive overall, particularly with the new serving size and percent daily value format. Overall, this study found that among college students there is a need to promote more favorable attitudes towards food labels, address negative social norms, and equip these students with knowledge and tools to better understand and interpret food labels, promoting self-efficacy.