Almost a year ago, we took an in-depth look at the dubious world of food marketing, and came away with the conclusion that the only thing you can really trust on a food label is the list of ingredients. And even then you’re probably not getting the full picture.
So we weren’t exactly surprised to find a new report claiming many food industry buzzwords—like "gluten-free," "antioxidant-rich," "whole-grain," and even "organic"—are nothing short of deceptive.
A study released this month by the University of Houston concluded that brands are using the terms to appeal to consumers and create a “false sense of health.” Coupled with a general misunderstanding of dietary health, such buzzwords may be contributing to the obesity epidemic in the United States.
Specifically, the study found people are more likely to believe certain food products are healthy if they are labeled with these terms. Temple Northup, an assistant professor in the School of Communication at UH, cited Cherry 7-Up, which contains the word “antioxidant” on its packaging, as an example.
“When people stop to think about it, there’s nothing healthy about Antioxidant Cherry 7-Up,” he said. “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.”
Northup went on to explain that the use of these terms by marketers is more about word association than direct manipulation. Certain phrases have a way of subtly influencing consumer behavior, often without their being aware of it.
“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. What happens when these words become accessible? They tend to influence or bias your frame of mind and how you evaluate something.”
To study this, Northup had more than 300 participants observe photos of random food products. Two images existed for each product—one including marketing terms like the ones mentioned above, the other with all such buzzwords photoshopped out of the photo. Not surprisingly, he found participants were far more likely to rate the labeled items as healthier.
Additionally, Northup asked subjects to review only the nutrition facts on a variety of food items. The labels were presented two at a time so participants could choose the healthier of the two. The results were similarly discouraging.
“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,” Northup added. “Approximately 20 percent picked Spam as the healthier option over salmon.”
It’s a shady workaround for the food industry, which has a storied history of deceptive marketing practices. Brands like Kellogg’s and Red Bull have faced lawsuits and regulatory intervention over past health claims, namely those that claim to accomplish some sort of healthy objective (Kellogg’s claim that sugar-coated wheat chunks improve memory function is perhaps the most ridiculous).
Buzzwords, however, rely on accurate but misleading claims. They rely on consumers’ ability to associate certain terms with overall health and well-being, as well as ignorance regarding the function of things like “glucose” or the legal definition of terms like “organic.” It’s actually brilliant, when you think about it. Some healthy foods are indeed “gluten-free.” But, like my favorite restaurant sign points out, so is lead, uranium, and cocaine.