According to a new study by the University of Houston, people are more likely to believe that products using healthy buzzwords are more healthful than products without label buzzwords, regardless of what ingredients are actually listed elsewhere on the label.
“Food marketers are exploiting consumer desires to be healthy by marketing products as nutritious when, in fact, they are not,” says Temple Northup, the author of the study, which was published in the journal Food Studies.
As an example, Northup points to Chef Boyardee, a canned pasta manufacturer. In 2011, their commercials began indicating that the pasta had “vegetable content” that parents pretended to be worried about — worried that their children would be turned off by the presence of vegetables in their favorite snack.
The commercials end up placing a “health halo” around the food, making consumers believe that the food contains large servings of vegetables. But as Northup points out, the two main vegetables are tomatoes and carrots, and carrots rank lower than salt by volume in the containers. Northup says that this is contrary to the implicit message of the commercial’s marketing, and is “not what consumers have in mind when they pick up a product boasting of its vegetable contents and nutritional value.”
The study, which consisted of 318 consumers, asked them to rate the “healthfulness” of a product based on the nutrition labels. When cherry 7-up was listed as having “antioxidants,” for example, consumers found it to be more healthful. Significantly, 33% of consumers believed that spam was healthier than salmon based on the way the label described the food.
“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,” says Northup in his suggestions for improving food labeling as well as corporate responsibility.