Study: ‘Organic’, ‘whole grain’ give unhealthy foods a health halo

The UH survey participants rated products with a health-related trigger word (i.e., whole grain on Chef Boyardee lasagna) as being significantly healthier than the same product that didn’t include those words.

Health-related buzzwords such as “heart healthy”, “organic” and “all natural” can lead consumers to rate unhealthy foods as healthy, according to a study of college students at the University of Houston (UH). 

By manipulating food labels, UH researchers sought to examine the degree to which consumers link certain marketing terms with health, finding that they often view food products labeled with health-related euphemisms as healthier than those without them. The research also showed that the Nutrition Facts labels printed on food packaging do little to counteract such buzzword marketing.

For the study, 318 undergraduate students with an average age of 22 were asked to rate how healthy different products were upon being presented with images of the product labels. Products and their included trigger words included: 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). All the marketing terms used can actually be found on these brands’ labels.

Unbeknownst to the participants, the product images had been digitally altered to either include the marketing buzzword or not. The products were randomly presented to participants, with each seeing four “healthy” and four “unhealthy” products in each session.

In every case, participants rated products with a health-related trigger word as being significantly healthier than the same product that didn’t include those words, the researchers found. Indeed, simply including the word “antioxidant” was enough to make participants view full-sugar Cherry 7-Up soda as being healthier than when the word was not included. Moreover, the changes to the packaging and product were typically quite subtle, according to the researchers. For instance, with the Tostitos chips, the words “All Natural” were printed in small type and only on the side of the bag.

“It is perhaps time that the food industry take responsibility for how they market their foods and acknowledge the role they play in keeping consumers in the United States misinformed about what is healthy to eat,” wrote Temple Northup, lead study author and assistant professor at UH’s  Jack J. Valenti School of Communication. “Healthy foods exist, many of which are organic, whole grain, natural and all of those other things that many foods today are being labeled. However, using those labels on foods such as soda only serve to sell a drink rather than inform consumers about the actual health content of the product.”

Dr. Northup added that the results are particularly troubling in light of previous research suggesting that labeling foods as “low fat” led consumers to overeat (see here), adding that a similar effect could arguably occur with these newer marketing terms.

Participants also had to choose between two food nutritional labels to determine which label was the healthier option across various categories (e.g., snack foods, entrees, etc). The results demonstrated that a large number of participants were generally unable to distinguish between the “healthy” option and the “unhealthy” option, even when choosing between such items as Spam and salmon. (Approximately 20% picked Spam as the healthier option over salmon, the study found.)

“This research suggests that there needs to be greater efforts made to educate consumers,” Dr. Northup concluded. “This education should include both programs aimed at understanding how food is marketed to help arm consumers with an ability to understand the techniques food manufacturers use as well as programs aimed to further basic nutritional knowledge.”

Source: Food Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal
“Truth, Lies, and Packaging: How Food Marketing Creates a False Sense of Health”
Author: Temple Northup

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