UH Study Finds ‘Health’ Food Labels Can Mislead Consumers

Buzzwords trick consumers into thinking a product is healthy, UH prof says.

cherrysevenup1.jpgLabels, like the one on this Cherry 7-Up bottle, can mislead consumers to believe the product is healthy.

You’ve probably seen them on products in the grocery store: Labels promoting foods and its ingredients as “organic,” “anti-oxidant,” or “gluten-free.”

Now a study by Temple Northup, an assistant professor at UH’s Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, found that these kinds of buzzwords give consumers a false sense of health.

“Everything that was labeled with these buzzwords were being rated healthier,” Northup said. “And so I think that’s the explanation is because you just link things like ‘anti-oxidant’ with ‘health,’ and even though we recognize that it’s on a Cherry 7-Up and there’s probably not something healthy about that, we still actually rate it healthier even though we’re not, like, consciously thinking about it.”

For the study, Northup surveyed more than 300 people who rated the perceived healthfulness of different products with the buzzwords and without them.

Dr. Shreela Sharma, a dietitian and assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, said it’s not a far fetch to say labels like these can contribute to obesity.

“The perception that you’re buying these foods that  could be healthy makes people eat more,” she said, “because the thought behind it is that, well, it’s healthy, so it can’t be bad for you, so I can eat more of this healthy food. And the problem with that is then, it can lead to just overconsumption of food.”

Sharma also said that just because something is labeled “whole-grain,” for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is – unless it says “100 percent” whole-grain.

Northup said he hopes his study contributes to a dialogue about how food is marketed and that it helps consumers make the right decisions in the grocery store.

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of Real Estate Editors, and Public Radio...

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