Packaged foods labelled with buzzwords such as “antioxidant,” “gluten-free,” and “whole grain” lead consumers to believe those products to be healthier than they actually are, according to a new study, “Truth, Lies, and Packaging: How Food Marketing Creates a False Sense of Health,” led by Temple Northup, assistant professor at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at University of Houston (UH).
The words targeted in the study convey a “false sense of health,” which, together with a difficulty among consumers in understanding the information presented in nutrition facts panels on packaged food, are bound to be contributing to the obesity epidemic in the United States, says Northup.
By studying the extent to which consumers identify marketing terms on food packaging with good health, the researchers came to the conclusion that consumers have a tendency to assume that food products labelled with health related words are healthier than those without such euphemisms. It has also shown that U.S. Food and Drug Administration-required nutrition facts panels on food packaging fail to actually counteract the marketing effect of those buzzwords.
The study analyzed the following trigger-worded-labelled products: 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).
“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.”
“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.
The study also evaluates a psychological effect called “priming” in order to explain the reason why certain words induce consumers into assigning 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.”
The researcher used priming theory in order to evaluate how consumers are influenced by food marketers. He conducted an online survey that showed random images of food products. Some of these images included actual marketing words, like “organic,” or a Photoshop-altered image, in which all trace of those words had been removed, thus creating two different images of the same product. The survey was then taken by 318 participants, who rated how “healthy” the product was.
“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. ”
Having completed the product evaluations, participants reviewed the nutrition facts panels on a variety of products. Presented in pairs, these labels would enable participants to choose 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.
It is Northup’s hope that this study will contribute to increase the dialogue on food marketing, to guide the development of specific media literacy and also to help people understand how effective food marketing is to consumers.