Understanding Food Labels Helps Older Americans Stay Healthy

Helen Jensen, CARD, (515) 294-6253
Barbara McManus, Ag Communications, (515) 294-0707

November 8, 2001

AMES, Iowa – Researchers at Iowa State University have found that older Americans have a limited understanding of the nutrition information found on food product labels.

Mary Jane Oakland, nutrition professor, and Helen Jensen, economics professor, have studied how older Americans read and use food labels. They analyzed three years of data from two USDA surveys on food intake, diet and health knowledge.

The surveys included questions about how people interpreted, understood and used food labels. Four age groups were analyzed from the data, 51 to 60, 61 to 70, 71 to 80 and 81 years and older. The results indicate that people 71 years or older don't interpret and understand the labels as well as those who were 51 to 70 years old.

"The older the person the less able he or she was to interpret food labels," Oakland said. "I think the 51 to 70 year-olds are doing better because of the emphasis on the relationship between food and health in recent years."

Under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which was passed in 1990, food processors were given until 1994 to make nutritional information available on food products. ISU nutritional researcher Janet Wooden said food labels have improved but the information may be difficult for some people to interpret without guidance.

"Many people forget to look at the serving size in comparison to the fat, sodium, or daily value for each nutrient," Wooden said.

The ability to understand and use food labels declined with age for men and women more than 50 years old. The only exception is for men between 71 and 80 years old, who have a better understanding of labels than those aged 61 to 70 or 81 years and older.

"This increase in understanding among seventy-year-olds coincides with an increase in label use and heart disease diagnoses. Those with heart-related problems may have been more likely to receive nutrition education," Wooden said.

The researchers concluded that older Americans need more education from registered dietitians on how to interpret food labels. Oakland said that educating this group could improve their understanding about the importance of preventive health care.

"As the percent of our population over age 50 grows, the ability to use nutrition as preventive medicine will become an important tool to maintain quality of life and to help the elderly live independently," Oakland said. "Teaching older folks how to use labels will improve their ability to use nutrition information to their long-term health advantage."