Health-related buzzwords mislead consumers into thinking packaged food products labeled with these words are healthier than they actually are, according to a new research study conducted by scholars at the University of Houston (UH).
Some of these words, such as “antioxidant,” “gluten-free” and “whole grain,” create a “false sense of health,” which when combined with a failure to understand the information presented in nutrition facts panels on packaged food, may be contributing to the obesity epidemic in the United States.
The study examined the degree to which consumers link marketing terms on food packaging with good health. It found that consumers tend to view food products labeled with vague or unsubstantiated, health-related euphemisms as healthier than those without them. The research also showed that the nutrition facts panels printed on food packaging as required by the US Food and Drug Administration do little to counteract that buzzword marketing.
“Words like 'organic,' 'antioxidant,' 'natural' and 'gluten-free' imply some sort of healthy benefit,” said Temple Northup, assistant professor at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at UH. “When people stop to think about it, there’s nothing healthy about Antioxidant Cherry 7Up — 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.”
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The study also looks at the “priming” psychology behind the words to explain why certain words prompt consumers to assign a health benefit to a food product with unhealthy ingredients.
“For example, if I gave you the word ‘doctor,’ not only ‘doctor’ would be accessible in your mind — now all these other things would be accessible in your mind — ‘nurse,’ ‘stethoscope,’ etc,” Northup said. “What happens when these words become accessible, they tend to influence or bias your frame of mind and how you evaluate something.”
This triggered concept is then available to influence later thoughts and behaviors, often without explicit awareness of this influence — the so-called priming effect, Northup said.
Northup developed an experiment using priming theory to gather quantitative research on how food marketers influence consumers. 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. A total of 318 study participants took the survey to rate how “healthy” each product was.
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 7Up (Antioxidant), Smuckers Peanut Butter (All Natural) and Tostitos (All Natural).
Northup found that when participants were shown the front of food packaging that included one of those trigger words, they would rate the items as healthier.
The world of food labeling is a tricky one, not just when it comes to communicating supposed health benefits — the debate still rages over whether labels should indicate the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).