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Food Marketing Creates a False Sense of Health According to New Research

Posted Jun 16 2014 4:44pm
A new research study from the University of Houston revealed that health-related buzzwords, such as "antioxidant," "gluten-free" and "whole grain," lull consumers into thinking packaged food products labeled with those words are healthier than they actually are.

Temple Northrop, an assistant professor at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communications at UH stated that, "false sense of health," as well as a failure to understand the information presented in nutrition facts panels on packaged food may be contributing to the obesity epidemic in the United States.

Cherry7UP-Antioxidant

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

The study took a closer look at how consumers link marketing terms on food packing with good health. The researchers found that consumers tend to view food products labeled with health-related euphemisms as healthier than those without them. It also showed that the nutrition facts panels printed on food packaging as required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration do little to counteract that buzzword marketing.

“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.”

The study also looks at the “priming” psychology behind the words to explain why certain words prompt consumers to assign 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.”

This triggered concept is then available to influence later thoughts and behaviors, often without explicit awareness of this influence – the so-called priming effect, Northup said.

Northup developed an experiment using priming theory to gather quantitative research on how food marketers influence consumers. He developed an online survey that randomly showed images of food products that either included actual marketing words, like organic, or a Photoshop image removing any traces of those words, thereby creating two different images of the same product. A total of 318 study participants took the survey to rate how “healthy” each product was.

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).

Northup found when participants were shown the front of food packaging that included one of those trigger words, they would rate the items as healthier.

“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. ”

After completing the product evaluations, the study participants then reviewed the nutrition facts panels on a variety of products. These labels would be presented two at a time so the participants could 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.

This study only confirms what I have already known. Consumers need to be better educated on how to read food labels instead of falling for false marketing tactics. In the fast paced lifestyle of American families it is so hard to convince consumers to slow down at the grocery store.  We just want to get in, fill our carts and get out.  It is not surprising that so many of us are falling for gimmicks on food packaging.  

We need an open dialogue on the effects of how food is marketed to consumers so we can come up with some kind of solution. 


*Source: http://www.uh.edu/news-events/stories/2014/June/061314foodmarketingstudy


About Our Founder

Cascia Talbert is a busy blogger,  and mother of five children, living in Spokane, WA. With a B.A. in history and law and a passion for writing and staying healthy, she started The Healthy Moms Magazine in 2007. The Healthy Moms Magazine is currently ranked the top health blog for moms. Ms. Talbert believes that if mothers are well educated on health issues and how to stay healthy, they can pass that information down to their children and reverse the childhood obesity statistics in the U.S.

Ms. Talbert  runs the  Healthy Moms Social Network , is the founder of  Healthy Moms Media , and also blogs at The Talbert Zoo .

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