‘Heart Healthy’? Maybe Not: Study Says ‘Healthy’ Food Labels Mislead Consumers

June 17, 2014  |  


Americans are increasingly eating healthier food. Or at least trying to.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working-age adults consumed an average of 118 fewer calories a day in the 2009-10 period than four years earlier. Americans ate more home-cooked meals with their families instead of eating out. And more Americans are reading nutritional labels on food at grocery stores more often, reports The Wall Street Journal.

So imagine the frustration of shoppers when they go to buy food products that claim to be healthy but turn out not to be at all. According to new research, food labels that suggest a product has nutritional value with healthy sounding buzzwords like “antioxidant,” “gluten-free” and “whole grain” could be misleading shoppers into thinking they are eating well.

The study’s principal investigator, Dr. Temple Northup, an assistant professor at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston, said: ‘Saying Cherry 7-Up contains antioxidants is misleading.” The product was taken off the market last year to stop a lawsuit that claimed fizzy drinks are not healthy so how could there be “health”?

Consumers pay attention to and believe marketing terms on food packaging. The study found shoppers viewed food products labelled with health-related terms as healthier than those without them, reports The Daily Mail.

For example, Dr. Northup said, “Words such as organic, antioxidant, natural and gluten-free imply some sort of healthy benefit.”

Among the products the researchers said had confusing labels were: Cherry 7-UP (antioxidant); Chocolate Cheerios (heart healthy); Apple Sauce (organic); Lasagna (whole grain); and Peanut Butter (all natural).

“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,” said Dr. Northup. “But its name is giving you this clue that there is some sort of health benefit to something that is not healthy at all.”

Dr. Northup even crafted an experiment using priming theory to collect data on how food marketers influence shoppers. “He developed an online survey that randomly showed images of food products that either included actual marketing words, such as organic, or a Photoshop image removing any traces of those words, thereby creating two different images of the same product,” reports the newspaper.

The study participants, 318 in all, rated how “healthy” each product was. When the participants were shown the front of food packaging that had one of those trigger words, they rated the products as healthier.

“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,” said Dr. Northup. “Approximately 20 per cent picked Spam as the healthier option over salmon.”

Some companies are actually trying to help consumers eat healthier.  Panera Bread decided to dump all the artificial additives from the food it sells by 2016.

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