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Lies the Labels Told Me: Beware Food Buzzwords

organic natural

Organic, All natural, and packed full of antioxidants; sounds healthy, doesn’t it? Unsurprisingly however, if something is trying to tout how healthy it is, it probably isn’t. Of course all those buzzwords have to mean something… don’t they?

According to a new research study conducted by scholars at the University of Houston, health-related buzzwords, such as “antioxidant,” “gluten-free” and “whole grain,” lull consumers into thinking packaged food products labeled with those words are healthier than they actually are.

Combine the health buzzword craze with problems people have with reading dietary labels and you have yet another cause for the obesity epidemic.

“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 Northup, principal investigator of the study, “Truth, Lies, and Packaging: How Food Marketing Creates a False Sense of Health.”

The study examined the degree to which consumers link marketing terms on food packaging with good health. It showed that consumers will tend to view food products labeled with health-related euphemisms as healthier than those without them. The researchers also showed that the nutrition facts panels — like those required by the U.S. 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,” 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.”

The study also looked at the so-called “priming” psychology behind the words, in order to help explain why certain words prompt consumers to assign a health benefit to a food product with unhealthy ingredients.

To do this, the researchers developed an experiment that used this priming theory to gather quantitative research on how food marketers influence consumers. The team developed a survey [that was done online] that randomly showed images of food products that either included actual marketing words, like organic, or a Photoshopped image removing any traces of those words, thereby creating two different images of the same product. There was a total of 318 study participants that took the survey to rate how “healthy” each product was.

Northup found that when participants were shown the front of food packaging which included one of those trigger words, they would rate the items as healthier.

“I took a label from Cherry 7-Up Antioxidant and Photoshop it without the word ‘antioxidant’ and only the words, ‘Cherry 7-Up.’ I then asked people via the online survey which one they thought was healthier,” said Northup. “Each time a participant saw one of the triggering words on a label, they would identify it as healthier than the other image without the word. ”

Once the product evaluations were finished, the study participants where then were asked to review the nutrition facts panels on a several different products. These labels would be presented two at a time so the participants could choose the appropriate healthier food or drink option.

“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.

Unfortunately marketing has created a whole subset of words that mean literally nothing. They are just words that sound good and marketed as healthy. The worst part about that is the misinformation gets parroted and sold as health facts instead of what they really are, a clever marketing ploy.

Bored with all the fancy buzzwords? You probably want the full study [although it has just as many buzzwords], which you can find — here!

Temple Northup (2014). Truth, Lies, and Packaging: How Food Marketing Creates a False Sense of Health Food Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 3 (1), 9-18 : http://ijo.cgpublisher.com/product/pub.199/prod.56

2 responses

  1. I usually try to filter out these “healthy” buzzwords and read the ingredients and nutrition value. Of course, I’m not that concerned about healthy food to begin with. I know that most of the food sold to us is not so healthy. But, tasty [unhealthy] food is one of these little joys of life.
    But, I try to cut back on carbs and calories. I recently made a wager with my wife. If I loose 10kg in 2 months, I’ll get 20min massage every night for two weeks. That’s a better incentive than another pizza pie.


    June 14, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    • That’s awesome. Yeah a lot of food isn’t exactly health food, but you’re doing great if you are looking at the nutrition labels. Most people don’t know how to read them.

      That is an awesome bet and really, a great way to lose the weight, good luck with the goal!


      June 14, 2014 at 5:47 pm

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