Effect of Posted Nutritional Information at College Cafeterias on Healthy Meal Choice

Several health issues stemming from being overweight and eating outside the home have prompted basic improvement initiatives from schools as well as public health departments. The effect of displaying nutritional information at the point of purchase on the choice of meal was investigated in this study, which was conducted in university cafeterias. The aim was to check if the recommended levels of calories, fat, sodium and vegetable consumption would be enhanced by at least 5 percent through this intervention. The results showed that such postings failed to alter meal choices or dietary nutrition intake (except in health-conscious people) and the choice was based on what was offered at the cafeteria.

Today’s lifestyle reflects poor eating habits due to easy availability of food outside the home that does not fulfill the required health/nutritional criteria. This leads to illnesses by lowering the intake of essential nutrients. Lack of physical activity accentuates this effect. This study targets youngsters just entering college, with newfound liberty to decide their diet patterns. The lifestyle followed during this age is critical to future health. Packaged foods bear labels with nutrition content, enabling the consumers to make healthy choices. The current research examines whether nutritional postings in places like cafeterias, where the offered food is not prepacked, are equally effective. In addition, compensatory nutrition at other times of the day and in subgroups of consumers was analyzed.

* The study involved voluntary participation from 225 students, aged 17 to 35 years, regularly eating at two cafeterias in Ghent University, Belgium.
* The menu was standard and comprised of 180 meal combinations. Using a questionnaire, data on the sociodemographic and dietary characteristics were recorded prior to the commencement of the study. The body mass indices (BMI) and the smoking status of all the participants were also recorded. All these baseline measurements were taken during the fall term.
* Informational postings on the nutritional aspects of the offered food were displayed one month prior to the follow-up measurements during the spring term. The foods were given star ratings based on compliance with health recommendations.
* After a month of this intervention, data on food intake was obtained from a food and drink record, wherein the students themselves recorded the data on their food intake.

Results/Key findings
* Posting of nutrition information did not alter the overall meal choice.
* No changes were seen between the meal choice and meal offered. Thus, it was inferred that people did not really select or question the nutritional value, but simply ate what was available at the cafeteria.
* Recommendations were not met in 65 percent of the meal choices for calories, 62 percent in sodium, 38 percent in saturated fat, and 44 percent in vegetables. However, vegetable consumption increased slightly.
* The 24-hour monitoring showed no compensatory nutrition during the rest of the day.
* Only 27 percent of the participants, with higher awareness of nutrition, health consciousness, and willingness to change opted for recommended meals.

Next steps/Shortcomings
The study was restricted to the same group in two cafeterias instead of several cafeterias. Sampling bias is likely to have occurred because of self-inclusion of the participants. Sudden changes in the menu could not be represented. Posting nutritional information one month prior to follow-up was insufficient to obtain a pronounced effect.

While consuming out-of-home foods, most consumers are ignorant of the nutritional profile of their foods. In most cases, the look, smell, taste and appeal are the factors that matter. Hence, the consumption choices depend on what is offered. The star rating of meals combined with the display of nutritional information at the POP is believed to be an effective option to influence the choice of consumers toward meals with the recommended levels of nutrition. Contrary to this belief, it was seen in the present study that such an intervention could be challenging in the present scenario. It is established that meal choices depended on the meals offered and not on the postings displaying nutritional information. Therefore, an ideal way to ensure healthy meal choices is to upgrade the offered meals to meet health requirements, especially in places where a large number of people eat regularly.

For More Information:
Posting Point-of-Purchase Nutrition Information in University Canteens Does not Infuence Meal Choice and Nutrient Intake
Publication Journal: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, June 2011
By Christine Hoefkens, Carl Lachat; Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium, and Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp, Belgium

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