Nutrition labels confuse teens and young adults

News Release

18 Jan 2016

Nutrition fact tables on pre-packaged food do little to help teens and young adults make healthier food choices because the labels are often confusing or hard to interpret, new research from Public Health Ontario (PHO) has found.

Erin Hobin, a scientist in PHO’s health promotion, chronic disease and injury prevention division, is lead author on a new paper titled, A Randomized Trial Testing the Efficacy of Modifications to the Nutritional Facts Table on Comprehension and Use of Nutrition Information among Adolescents and Young Adults in Canada. The study, published in the journal Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada: Research, Policy and Practice, is the first in Canada to examine how teens and young adults understand and use nutrition labels on pre-packaged foods.

Nutrition labels are the most common source of nutrition information among Canadians. The researchers wanted to examine ways to improve the format and content of nutrition labels to help teens and young adults make more informed and healthier food choices as they participate in food shopping and preparation.

The study asked 2,010 Canadians, aged 16 to 24, to look at nutrition labels on boxes of crackers and interpret, compare and calculate nutrition information. The participants viewed control labels currently on boxes and compared them to labels that were slightly modified. When standardized serving sizes and additional colour codes or “low/medium/high” descriptors were added to nutrition labels, the participants found the information easier to understand and interpret. Participants still had some difficulty, however, calculating nutrition information for multiple servings.

“Poor diet is a leading risk factor for chronic disease and premature death in Canada. Consuming more calories, saturated fat and sodium are linked to higher risks for obesity, diabetes and heart disease,” says Hobin.

“Nutrition labels are intended to help people make more informed and healthier food choices. However, current labels can be confusing and hard to understand. Our research shows that standardizing serving sizes and providing additional cues improves how teens and young adults interpret and use nutrition labels.”


  • Hobin and colleagues from Public Health Ontario, the University of WaterlooVictoria University in Australia, and Sick Kids Hospital conducted an online survey among 2,010 Canadians, aged 16 to 24.
  • Mandatory nutrition labels were implemented in Canada in 2005 to help people make more informed food choices.
  • Health Canada is reviewing proposed changes to nutrition labels, including standardized serving sizes for similar products and adding a definition for percent daily values of nutrients to explain what is “a little” or “a lot.” For example, a product label with 30% daily value per serving of sodium is considered “a lot” while one with 5% is “a little.”


Public Health Ontario is a Crown corporation dedicated to protecting and promoting the health of all Ontarians and reducing inequities in health. Public Health Ontario links public health practitioners, front-line health workers and researchers to the best scientific intelligence and knowledge from around the world. For the latest PHO news, follow us on Twitter: @publichealthON.


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Updated 18 Jan 2016