There is a growing body of literature on how use of nutritional labelling influences adults food purchasing decisions, especially in the light of the new European food information legislation that is making its way through the Brussels law-making process.
Two researchers from the National Taiwan University and the University of Arkansas, in the US, identified a gap in evidence of the impacts on children’s diets, however, and in particular on childhood obesity – even though other determinants of obesity in children have been studied.
In an attempt to bridge this gap Hung-Hao Chang and Rodolpho Nayga studied data from Taiwan’s 2001 National Health Interview Survey. Adults in some 5000 households were asked “When you buy a food item, how often would you check the nutritional information about sugar, fat, salt, phosphate, and cholesterol listed on the label?”.
Respondents had to give their answers as: Never, seldom, sometime, often, or always.
Other variable such as the mother’s age, level of education and religious inclinations were also taken into account, as well as whether she was a smoker or a drinker.
The researchers used a two-stage econometric model to pit these responses against children’s body mass index (BMI). Other variables relating to the children were considered, such as physical activity level, time spent watching TV or playing video games, and whether they eat breakfast.
The researchers wrote in the journal Food Policy: “Results indicate that mother’s nutritional label use leads to lower probability of children becoming overweight and obese.”
However they added that the magnitude of the effect was rather small, “suggesting that additional instruments or policies are needed if further reduction in children’s body mass index is desired”.
They conclude that while policies and programmes to educate mothers of the benefits of labels will help increase use, the other possible measures include decreasing hours of watching television use, improving quality of school foods, increasing physical activity in schools, and providing formal nutrition education to both adults and children.
The researchers say parallel studies in other countries or regions where childhood obesity is a major problem would be interesting, such as the US, China and the EU, to see if comparable observations are made.
They also noted that mothers and fathers can have different impacts on children’s eating habits. However they chose to focus on mothers’ label use because the vast majority of children in Taiwan are cared for mainly by their mothers, and women are, in the majority of cases, families’ primary food shoppers.
Food Policy (2010) Article in press
Mother’s nutritional label use and children’s body weight
Authors: Hung-Hao Chang, Rodolfo Nayga