Photo: neatlysliced (flickr)
When it comes to random health vocab splashed across food labels, we’re prone to take the bait.
That’s the finding of a new study from the University of Houston, where researchers asked 318 participants to rate the healthiness of products with and without health buzzwords like “organic,” “gluten free” and “whole grain” on their labels.
Temple Northup, lead investigator for the study and assistant professor in the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, said those words imply some kind of health benefit, even on products like soda or sugary cereal that are clearly junk food. He proposed that the use of health words “primes” the brain to link a product with legitimate uses of those terms, which could influence choices.
“If we see a the word ‘doctor,’ things like ‘nurse,’ ‘hospital,’ ‘medicine,’ all of those things are suddenly more accessible in our mind. And so those things that are closely related actually bias how we interpret new information.”
The theory of priming was first discussed in the 1970s and is widely accepted, but it has its critics.
Whatever is happening backstage, the results certainly show a strong effect.
On a scale of 1 to 100, apple sauce labeled “organic” was rated 12 points higher than the same product without the word. Participants gave Chef Boyardee Lasagna a 19.2 point boost when it had “whole grain” written on its package. Chocolate Cheerios received 5.3 more rating points with “heart healthy” on the label.
“Truth, Lies, and Packaging: How Food Marketing Creates a False Sense of Health,” was published in the Food Studies journal.
Excuses for Sale
Northup said the use of buzzwords might not fully convince someone that a product like Chocolate Cheerios is healthy, but it might help a consumer reach for that product instead of better options.
“Nobody really wants to be unhealthy,” he said. “But a lot of us have been raised on McDonald’s and having a fairly sugary and salty diet, and so we’re looking for ways to rationalize our decisions.”
“So if we see Chocolate Cheerios is labeled as ‘heart healthy,’ I might think ‘I know it’s not a good as Grape Nuts or granola, but it is ‘heart healthy’ so there must be some health benefit so I can rationalize eating a bowl or even a second bowl.”
Advocacy groups have been pushing for bans on misleading health claims. Consumer Reports has called for a ban on the term “natural,” because it has little practical use for the consumer.
In 2012, the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a lawsuit against Dr Pepper Snapple Group for labeling Cherry 7-Up as an “antioxidant.” The soda flavor doesn’t contain any fruit, but the company had added vitamin E to the drink to support the claims. The company voluntarily stopped using the word on its labels.