News article

‘Organic’, ‘whole grain’ give unhealthy foods a health halo

Posted:  Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A recent study suggests that food labels may be misleading and consumers should also refer to the ingredients before buying food products.

In the U.S. obesity is the biggest issue and there are several reasons that are adding to the growing problem.

Researchers found health-related buzzwords - such as ‘antioxidant,’ ‘gluten-free’ and ‘wholegrain’ - lull shoppers into thinking products labelled with these words are healthier than they actually are according to a study of college students at the University of Houston (UH).

They claim that food corporations are successful in fooling consumers with manipulated food packaging. The study suggests that consumers associate marketing terms with health and are more inclined to think that food labels with such buzzwords are healthier than the products that do not have them.

The researchers found shoppers tend to view food products labelled with health-related terms as healthier than those without them.

And the nutritional fact panels printed on food packaging do little to counteract buzzword marketing, they found.

For the study, 318 undergraduate students with an average age of 22 were asked to rate how healthy different products were upon being presented with images of the product labels. Products and their included trigger words included: Apple Sauce (Organic), Chef Boyardee Lasagna (Whole Grain), Chocolate Cheerios (Heart Healthy), Cherry 7-Up (Antioxidant), Smuckers Peanut Butter (All Natural), and Tostitos (All Natural). All the marketing terms used can actually be found on these brands’ labels.

Unknown to the participants, the product images had been digitally altered to either include the marketing buzzword or not. The products were randomly presented to participants, with each seeing four “healthy” and four “unhealthy” products in each session.

In every case, participants rated products with a health-related trigger word as being significantly healthier than the same product that didn’t include those words, the researchers found. Indeed, simply including the word “antioxidant” was enough to make participants view full-sugar Cherry 7-Up soda as being healthier than when the word was not included. Moreover, the changes to the packaging and product were typically quite subtle, according to the researchers. For instance, with the Tostitos chips, the words “All Natural” were printed in small type and only on the side of the bag.

“It is perhaps time that the food industry take responsibility for how they market their foods and acknowledge the role they play in keeping consumers in the United States misinformed about what is healthy to eat,” wrote Temple Northup, lead study author and assistant professor at UH’s Jack J. Valenti School of Communication. “Healthy foods exist, many of which are organic, whole grain, natural and all of those other things that many foods today are being labelled. However, using those labels on foods such as soda only serve to sell a drink rather than inform consumers about the actual health content of the product.”

Dr. Northup added that the results are particularly troubling in light of previous research suggesting that labelling foods as “low fat” led consumers to overeat (see here), adding that a similar effect could arguably occur with these newer marketing terms.