Gender and Food Labels

May 30, 2013

Gender and Food Labels

Women check and use food label components more often and thoroughly than men, according to a recent study from the University of Alabama and published in theJournal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

This article was originally published in Food, Nutrition & Science.

Women check and use food label components more often and thoroughly than men, according to a recent study from the University of Alabama and published in theJournal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The study, which looked at a sample of 573 males and 809 females aged 19 to 70 years, found that women use the Nutrition Facts label, health claims, ingredient lists and serving sizes more frequently than men when making decisions about food products. 

Nutrition Facts Labels have been a part of the consumer landscape for almost 20 years, but their use has actually slightly declined during that time (65% of consumers used the labels in 1995; 62% used them in 2009-2010). Studies have shown, however, that there are benefits for those that use labels, including improved dietary quality, reduced energy intake and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Food labels contain a wealth of information about the nutritional content and ingredients of a food product, as well as health claims. A consumer can use the food label to determine the number of calories in a serving or determine whether the product contains whole grains, for example.

Previous studies have shown that women use food labels more then men to make food choices. In this study, researchers wanted to examine differences between how men and women actually use and apply the labels to their daily lives. They found that women check the majority label components more consistently than men, and in line with other research, use the labels more frequently when making decisions about food choices.

Personal factors, like age and education (more education correlated with more label checking), as well as personal systems like diet quality affected female scores. Food label use did not differ by income level among men nor women. However, men who did not receive SNAP benefits had higher scores than men who received assistance. SNAP participation was not a significant predictor for label use among women. Why? It is possible, says Kimberly Stran, MS, RD, study author, that women are the main recipients of SNAP-Ed, which can include education on the food label, so their scores were not statistically different.

Race was a significant predictor of label use for men only too – specifically, Hispanic men checked the labels more frequently than white men. Both men and women who were 51 to 70 years of age had significantly higher rates of checking the labels and then using them – compared with younger participants in the study.

“Older consumers may check the labels more than younger consumers because they may be more likely to have health ailments or chronic diseases that require them to follow a specific diet. For example, a person diagnosed with hypertension may be diligent about checking the sodium content on the food label,” says Stran.

Men and women who perceived their diets to be of good quality also checked food labels more frequently than others with a lesser perception of their diets. Researchers say this could be true for two reasons. One is that men and women may believe their diet quality is better because they check food labels. Another explanation is that health conscious people may simply check labels more frequently.

Stran points out that it is important to understand how men and women use food labels differently because health educators and dietitians may need to tailor education efforts to each group. This type of research can help health professionals, such as health educators and registered dietitians, to develop nutrition education that is targeted towards men and women separately.

“The food label contains so much information that can be confusing for many people. We need to teach consumers how to properly read and use the information on labels in order to see improvements in dietary quality,” says Stran.