Unraveling Food Package Claims

By IDEA Authors
Aug 25, 2016

There is a lot of confusion among consumers about what food product labels mean. Terms like “gluten-free, fat-free, all-natural” and “GMO-free” imply health benefits, yet they sometimes promote processed foods full of undesirable ingredients such as refined sugars, trans fats and chemical additives. You want to eat healthfully, but how do you make sense of product claims?

Learn what “health halos” are, and discover the difference between marketing hype and the real deal. Megan Senger, a writer, sales consultant and fitness instructor based in North Carolina, explores what lies behind the healthy aura that marketing creates on the packages of processed foods.

The Health Halo Effect

Research tells us people think foods with front-of-package health claims (“rich in omega-3,” “supports immunity,”“lowfat,” etc.) have fewer calories and are better for their health. This phenomenon is known as the “health halo effect.” It’s an area extensively studied by Brian Wansink, PhD, a marketing professor and behavioral economics expert at Cornell University in New York, who directs the university’s Food and Brand Lab. Wansink is the author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (William Morrow 2014).

Front-of-package claims “cause us to believe the food product is much more healthy than it actually is,” says Wansink. And health claim labels like “free-range, gluten-free, pesticide-free” and “antioxidant-laden” cause consumers to think, “’The more [of this food] we eat, the better.’”

People usually believe front-of-package claims, perceive them to be government-endorsed and use them to ignore the Nutrition Facts Label on the back or side of the packaging (Nestle & Ludwig 2010).

Beware the hype. Anything “healthful” that you see on the front of a food package puts you more at risk of overeating and of misjudging the true healthfulness of the product, says Wansink. “We’ve found that the least-healthy products tend to have the most nutrition claims on the front,” adds Jennifer Harris, PhD, MBA, a marketing executive turned researcher at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University.

Read the Back

Many health claims on package fronts are exaggerated and/or based on circumstantial inferences—not hard science. “Front-of-package claims promise far more than the medical evidence would agree they might deliver,” says Yoni Freedhoff, MD, a physician, professor and weight loss specialist in Ottawa, Ontario.

So ignore the front and read the back. “Consumers should ignore the nutrition claims on the front of product packages and read the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient list on the back instead,” Harris says.

Use the Web

You can also get to the bottom of a package claim by using your smartphone. Try the WSPA Eat Humane app, which navigates food labels in relation to animal-welfare issues. Or visit GreenerChoices’ Eco-Labels Center (www.greenerchoices.org), a website with comprehensive explanations of over 150 governmental and third-party food labels. Finally, Freedhoff recommends the Fooducate app. This allows consumers to scan a product’s barcode, view the item’s health “report card” and obtain suggestions of better alternatives.

THE FOOD MARKETING MACHINE

There’s good reason to be skeptical about claims on food labels, according to Yoni Freedhoff, MD, a physician, professor and weight loss specialist in Ottawa, Ontario. “If the front of a package needs to convince you of the healthfulness of its contents, there’s a darn good chance its contents aren’t healthful,” says Freedhoff, author of The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work (Harmony 2014).

The food industry is among the top advertisers in the U.S. media market (Chandon & Wansink 2012). And marketers have become increasingly likely to make heavy use of health claims on the front of food packages.

So what can you do? Simple. Eat whole foods as often as possible. Choose foods from nature in their whole state. Freedhoff says: “A person’s far more likely to improve [his or her] health by seeking out more produce and fewer products, regardless of thos


References

Chandon, P., & Wansink, B. 2012. Does food marketing need to make us fat? A review and solutions. Nutrition Reviews, 70 (10), 571-93.
Nestle, M., & Ludwig, D. 2010. Front–of–package food labels: Public health or propaganda? Journal of the American Medical Association, 303 (8), 771-72.

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