Adolescents who read the nutrition facts labels on food packaging aren’t necessarily eating healthier diets than those who don’t, according to a new study.

The research, funded by the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, revealed that nearly 22% of the adolescents surveyed never read nutrition labels.

The researchers surveyed 300 boys and girls aged 10 to 19, primarily Caucasian and African-American. Each volunteer’s body mass index and dietary fat intake were assessed. More than 56% of the participants reported sometimes reading nutrition labels, nearly 22% reported always reading nutrition labels and nearly 22% reported never reading them.

A higher fat intake was associated with the boys who always read nutrition labels, but not so for the girls who read the labels. The researchers speculate that a desire among boys to “beef up” could lead them to seek more protein and, in the process, consume more fat. No differences in nutrition-label reading were found across ethnicities, but the African-Americans consumed more calories from fat than the Caucasians.

Based on this preliminary study, the authors of the report recommend that educators and parents help children learn how to use the information on nutrition facts labels more effectively. The US Food and Drug Administration updated its online resource, “How To Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label“, in November 2004.