With many consumers monitoring their diets, it’s no surprise words like “antioxidant” and “whole grain” attract the eyes of consumers. But a new study from the University of Houston suggests these words mislead consumers into a false understanding of a product’s health benefits.
Temple Northup, university professor and principal investigator of the study titled “Truth, Lies, and Packaging: How Food Marketing Creates a False Sense of Health,” said the information presented on a product’s nutrition facts panel could be contributing to the obesity problem in the US.
“Food marketers are exploiting consumer desires to be healthy by marketing products as nutritious when, in fact, they’re not,” Northup said.
The study aimed to detect how much consumers associate terms on food packaging to with good health. As a result, the study found that products with health-related euphemisms were favored by consumers to those without them.
The study also studied the “priming effect,” or what Northup said is the psychology behind certain words prompting consumers to associate additional health benefits with a product, sometimes subconsciously.
Northup’s study included a 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. Participants were asked to rate how healthy a product was.
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.