Healthy Labels Magic Words Regardless of the Food Inside


Healthy. Antioxidant. Gluten free. Whatever magic healthy label a food product has on it, people think it is healthier than a similar one without those words, regardless of the actual food inside or if they really are the same product.

In the old days, a product would get repackaged with “New” or “Improved” on a label to get attention. Now it is magic words like No GMOs, Reduced Fat, Low Sugar, Antioxidant, Multigrain, Organic and other labels that imply the food inside is good for those who eat it.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Houston found that simply placing a healthy euphemism on a food package made people believe it was healthier than others then made no obvious health claims. The study also found that consumers are influenced by the labels regardless of what ingredients are inside. Yes, putting Organic on a Twinkie would convince people it is now a healthy product.

The Houston research was based on 318 participants in an online survey. They were asked to analyze certain products and determine if they are healthy or not. They were shown products labeled with common “buzzwords” like all natural, organic, or gluten free, and additional food products that had no health labeling.

Participants were shown products both with and without the “magic words” they have actually used on their packaging. The products included things like Annie’s Bunny Fruit Snacks (organic), Cherry 7Up (antioxidant), Chocolate Cheerios (heart healthy), and Tostitos (all natural). They were also shown versions without the buzzwords. They were then directed to rate how healthy they believed each product to be.

According to results, if a package promises health benefits, consumers apparently believe it. When participants saw a label had one of the triggering words, they identified it as healthier than another image missing the word, according to the study’s lead investigator, Dr. Temple Northup, Assistant Professor at the university’s Jack J. Valenti School of Communication.

The researchers pointed out that just because people might purchase something labeled as healthy, does not mean that they are eating healthy. The research group suggested that food labeled as healthy may therefore be contributing to the nation’s obesity problem. Poor dietary habits is regarded to be a leading cause for the increase in numbers of overweight and obese people in the U.S. Many consumers may be consciously trying to consume a nutritious diet but the food companies are consciously marketing unhealthy food to them with magic words like “Organic,” “Whole Grain” and more to fool them into buying.

One example frequently cited is “Made with Real Fruit,” particularly on juice drinks. They may only contain a few drops of real fruit.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes it mandatory that food packages contain nutrition facts on them, including nutrients, calories, ingredients and more. However, customers do not read the fine print. They are attracted towards the magic, healthy labels that companies use to sell their products regardless of whether there actually is healthy content inside the food packages. The labeling requirements are currently under review by the FDA, and reforms are expected. However, new packaging will not be required of companies for a couple of years after the changes are implemented

By Dyanne Weiss

Los Angeles Times
ABC News
New York Daily News

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