food labels
June 15, 2014

Food Marketing Often Creates A False Sense Of Health

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

Not long after the presumably more consumer-friendly nutritional information labels were rolled out, Beth Landman of The New Yorker magazine published an expose, entitled 'Too Good To Be True', in the May 30, 1994 issue that spelled out how deceptive marketing paired with the new labels seemed to confound an otherwise moderately intelligent consumer base.

The mid-90's experienced a craze that might seem somewhat familiar today, the obsession with fro yo. Companies like Haagen-Dazs, Frusen Glädjé, and others promised those who purchased their products would experience decadent pleasure without any of the guilt. Another product of that era, Nabisco's Snackwell's brand of Devil's Food Cookies, labeled as “Fat-Free”, became so popular with the 'snack without consequences' set, that many stores across America couldn't keep the cookie in stock.

While one would like to think lessons are learned and the American consumer becomes incrementally smarter and more savvy over time, it appears the genius of food marketing is that seeking suckers operates on a cyclical calendar. A new study by researchers at the University of Houston (UH), focusing on consumer knowledge of nutritional labeling and carefully selected marketing buzzwords, illustrates the veracity of the claim above.

While sugar-free and fat-free were the attention-getters some two decades ago, shoppers today find their eyes attracted by words like “antioxidant”, “whole grain” and “gluten-free.” The last is especially more interesting in light of the recent news that non-celiac gluten sensitivity was most likely disproven as being a real condition, according to Forbes contributor Steven Ross Pomeroy.

Nevertheless, it appears those and similar other buzzwords are able to lull the average consumer into believing that the food within its packaging is actually healthier than it is. This willingness to be duped by Madison Avenue when paired with a functional ignorance of just what the information on a nutrition label actually means usually results in poor dietary choices being made. According to Temple Northup, assistant professor at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at UH, the epidemic of obesity ends up being more pronounced due to decisions made by people thinking they are making healthy food selections.

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

The gist of the study was to explore to what degree a consumer would make a link to the perception of a healthy product due to marketing terms used on the outer packaging. Certain of the above health-related euphemisms caused consumers to make a false equivalency between packaging buzzwords and the beneficence of the product contained. Additionally, the study explored how the use of certain healthful words on the packaging successfully confused the consumer with regard to the nutrition fact panel on the product, required by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“Words like organic, antioxidant, natural and gluten-free imply some sort of healthy benefit,” Northup explained. “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.”

A better understanding of the phenomena required the team to also explore the idea of “priming” psychology. In this science, one can better learn why it is that certain words are able to prompt a consumer into believing a product with clearly unhealthy ingredients could actually be healthy for them.

“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 commented. “What happens when these words become accessible, they tend to influence or bias your frame of mind and how you evaluate something.”

As Northup went on to explain, once a concept is triggered in an individual, it is then able to influence later thoughts and behaviors, often without explicit awareness of the influence even having been made. This, he explains, is the crux of the so-called priming effect.

To test the theory, Northup designed an experiment that employed the priming theory in order to gather quantitative research on how food marketers influence consumers. The first aspect of the study was an online survey which presented images to study participants. In each image, marketing buzzwords like 'Organic' were either left on the packaging or digitally removed. Effectively, there were two different images of the same product created for this portion of the study. In all, Northup gave the survey to 318 study participants who rated the healthiness of each product based solely on the image presented.

The products and the buzzwords used in Northup's study were: Annie's Bunny Fruit Snacks (Organic), Apple Sauce (Organic), Chef Boyardee Beefaroni (Whole Grain) and Chef Boyardee Lasagna (Whole Grain), Chocolate Cheerios (Heart Healthy), Cherry 7-Up (Antioxidant), Smuckers Peanut Butter (All Natural) and Tostitos (All Natural).

Not surprisingly, each participant shown an image of the food product that contained the marketing buzzword rated the items as being healthier than the same products without the trigger words in the image.

“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. ”

The next aspect of the study required the participants to review the nutritional facts panels on a variety of different products. The purpose of this portion of the study was to determine if a functional literacy with regard to these panels exists among consumers. Participants were presented with two labels at one time and would be asked to decide which label represented the 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.

This study and its results will, Northup hopes, help in facilitating a necessary dialogue on how food is packaged and marketed to the American consumer. Additionally, he believes his results should help to open the eyes of the consumer to the methods and practices food producers will use to ensure their products are purchased.

As noted at the beginning of The New Yorker article mentioned above, we might want to take something away from the seminal 90's show that was seemingly about nothing. “Seinfeld and friends were right: If it tastes this good, it can't be nonfattening.”