Food And Health | Moya Tyler
Posted On June 18, 2014 At 3:29 Pm
Be honest. Do you look at a food label that says “organic” or “gluten free” and automatically feel like you’re making a healthy choice. If you do, you’re not alone, and researchers at the University of Houston have revealed how big of a problem that can actually be.
In a recent study, led by Dr. Temple Northup, an assistant professor at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at UH, researchers demonstrated that in spite of the actual nutritional value of a product, test subjects got a “false sense of health” based on the buzzwords, or trigger words, on the packaging. Dr. Northup explained the experimental setup which included 318 participants who completed online surveys to assess the “health” of different foods.
“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.”
According to the authors, these trigger words are tools for priming consumers. Psychology Today describes priming as a “nonconscious form of human memory concerned with perceptual identification of words and objects.” In other words, if you hear about the benefits of eating organic foods either in the media or from a health practitioner, then you begin to unconsciously associate the word “organic” with health, regardless of the fact that the particular product could have little health benefit.
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 7-Up (Antioxidant), Smuckers Peanut Butter (All Natural) and Tostitos (All Natural).
Perhaps the most extreme example used in the study was the use of Cherry 7-Up Antioxidant, which, as Northup notes, has no nutritional value. “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.”
Studies like this put pressure on the food industry to be more transparent in advertising. While marketers insist that consumers have nutritional labels to rely on, this study also demonstrated that we are not as adept at reading labels as we might think.“[P]eople 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.
Considering the world wide obesity epidemic and initiatives toward improving overall health, this study has far reaching implications, as people earnestly seeking to improve their health are quite possibly being sabotaged at the supermarket. There should be an increased effort on the part of consumers to educate themselves on food choices as well as on food marketers to resist deceptive marketing techniques.
The study, Truth, Lies, and Packaging: How Food Marketing Creates a False Sense of Health, was published in the journal Food Studies.