June 20, 2014

All-Natural? Hardly. Food labels often mislead consumers, study says

A study by a University of Houston professor shows consumers often lack the knowledge to understand the meaning of food labeling information.

Beefaroni says it’s whole grain. Chocolate Cheerios boasts it is heart healthy. Tostitos are labeled “all natural.” Cherry 7-Up claimed to be antioxidant.

But a University of Houston associate professor in communications says in a new study that those terms on product labels have more to do with marketing than health. And consumers seeking more healthy food options are quick to buy based on the labels whether the product is really good for them or not.

“At some point the food industry realized that people are trying to eat healthier by doing things like buying organic products, so they decided to label their apple candy organic because the one-half of 1 percent of the product that is apple was indeed organic,” said Temple Northup, author of the study. “When you see words like antioxidant or gluten-free, you automatically associated that with health. But the products aren’t necessarily healthy.”

Northup’s study, Truth, Lies and Packaging: How Food Marketing Creates a False Sense of Health, was published this week in the journal Food Studies.

The study, which included 318 participants, looked at the link consumers made between marketing terms on food packaging and good health. It found that consumers tend to view food products labeled with health-related euphemisms as healthier than those without them. The research also showed that the nutrition facts printed on food packaging that are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration do little to counteract the healthy marketing terms.

In part of the study, Northup randomly showed participants images of food products that either included actual marketing words, like organic, or an altered image that removed those words.

“Every single product labeled with a marketing buzzword was rated significantly healthier than the exact same product with the word removed,” Northup said in the study.

After completing the product evaluations, the study participants then reviewed nutrition facts panels on products and asked to pick the healthier of two food options in the same category, such as cereals or drinks.

Again, the results showed a lack of knowledge with half of participants picking Frosted Flakes over Raisin Bran and one-third choosing Spam over salmon and a cookie over a granola bar.

“Food marketers say there are nutritional labels, so people can find out what’s healthy and what’s not,” he said. “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.”

At least one product in the survey — Cherry 7-Up — has since removed its antioxidant claims on its own. Northup cautions consumers, however, that there is very little government oversight on the marketing side of food labels. And most of the labeling is misleading, but not completely false.

“The FDA doesn’t have a lot of power to enforce these things,” he said. “Even if products are found to have false or deceptive claims the manufacturers are never fined a lot of money.”

Some healthy marketing words like “natural” have no real definition at all, but still sound healthy, Northup said.

In a separate study, Consumer Reports found that 59 percent of consumers look to see if a product is labeled as “natural,” even though there is no federal or third-party verification system for the term.

The study showed that a majority of people believe that the term “natural” should mean a packaged item was made from ingredients grown without pesticides (86 percent), doesn’t include artificial ingredients (87 percent), and doesn’t contain genetically modified organisms (85 percent). But the FDA has not developed a definition for the term, so none of that may be true on products carrying the word.

Because of its widespread use and health implications, the magazine is calling for a ban on the term. To learn more, go to

Bottom line, Northup says: Take anything written on a package (outside of the nutritional food label) with a grain of salt.

“If the product needs a health claim, it’s probably not healthy,” he said. “Don’t believe the packaging.”

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