A study by University of Houston researchers has found that health buzzwords placed on products have more impact than reading the corresponding nutritional label. The focus of the research study was to examine the degree to which consumers link marketing terms on food packaging with health. The researchers point out that this creates a false sense of health contributing to the current obesity epidemic in the U.S. where words such as antioxidant, gluten-free and whole grain create a false sense of security when it comes to nutritional labeling. Consumers are aware that these words are associated with a positive health benefit and associate them with the product even if the nutritional labeling states the opposite.
The study examined the influence of buzzwords on food marketing through an online survey which randomly showed images of food products that contained words advocating health benefits of products vs the same products without the health buzzwords. The products with trigger words in their labels analyzed in the study were: Annie’s Bunny Fruit Snacks (Organic), Apple Sauce (Organic), Chef Boyardee Beefaroni (Whole Grain) Chef Boyardee Lasagna (Whole Grain), Chocolate Cheerios (Heart Healthy), Cherry 7-Up (Antioxidant), Smuckers Peanut Butter (All Natural) and Tostitos (All Natural).
In general when the 318 study participants were shown the front of food packaging that included one of those trigger words, they would rate the items as healthier. After completing the product surveys, the research participants then reviewed the nutritional labels on a variety of products. These labels would be presented two at a time so the participants could choose the healthier food or drink option.
“Saying Cherry 7-Up contains antioxidants is misleading. Food marketers are exploiting consumer desires to be healthy by marketing products as nutritious when, in fact, they’re not,” said Temple Northup, principal investigator of the study, “Truth, Lies, and Packaging: How Food Marketing Creates a False Sense of Health.”
“Words like organic, antioxidant, natural and gluten-free imply some sort of healthy benefit,” Northup said. “When people stop to think about it, there’s nothing healthy about Antioxidant Cherry 7-Up — it’s mostly filled with high fructose syrup or sugar. But its name is giving you this clue that there is some sort of health benefit to something that is not healthy at all.”
“Food marketers say there are nutritional labels, so people can find out what’s healthy and what’s not,” he said. “Findings from this research study indicate people aren’t very good at reading nutritional labels even in situations where they are choosing between salmon and Spam. Approximately 20 percent picked Spam as the healthier option over salmon,” said Northup.
University of Houston. “How food marketing creates false sense of health.”