Consumers are likely to believe that "whole grain" canned pasta, "organic" candy and soda that contains "antioxidants" are more healthful than the same products without those buzzwords on the labels, researchers say.
People say they want to make healthful choices, but "food marketers are taking advantage of them by misleading those consumers with deceptive labeling," said Temple Northup, assistant professor in communications at the University of Houston and author of a study published Tuesday in the journal Food Studies.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post misspelled the last name of University of Houston assistant communications professor Temple Northup as "Northrup."
"We live in a labeled world," said Jonathon Schuldt, an assistant professor of communications at Cornell University who was not involved with the study. Food manufacturers have invested heavily in getting people to buy their products; that is their job, he said.
"At the end of the day it's still soda. If you don't want your children consuming sugar, you shouldn't give it to them whether it has antioxidants or not," Schuldt said.
Northup was motivated by the idea that overconsumption of unhealthful foods is a major contributor to obesity and its attendant diseases, including diabetes. He used Chef Boyardee, a ConAgra label, as an illustration.
In 2011, he wrote, its commercials began showing parents trying to hide the healthful aspects of the canned pastas, including vegetable content, from their children, with mothers "worried that telling the children about the vegetables would ruin their 'favorite afternoon snack.'"
The commercials place a "health halo" around the pastas that is not justified, Northup said. He notes that the Chef Boyardee beef ravioli claims to contain a full serving of vegetables. The ingredient label lists tomatoes and carrots — though the carrots rank behind salt in volume. "This is, presumably, not what consumers have in mind when they pick up a product boasting of its vegetable contents and nutritional value," he writes.
The soda analyzed in the study, 7-Up cherry antioxidant, was taken off the market last year to maintain "consistency" with other company products, Chris Barnes, a company spokesman, said in an email.
ConAgra did not comment in response to requests. But the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. trade group issued a statement saying that industry, government, parents, communities and healthcare providers all must help solve the problem of obesity.
"America's food and beverage companies enthusiastically support [First Lady Michelle] Obama's goal, and in recent years we have accelerated our efforts to provide consumers with the products, tools and information they need to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle," the statement said.
The trade group said it "agrees with and supports federal laws requiring food labels to be truthful and non-misleading," and that its claims are meant to "provide positive dietary guidance messages to consumers."
Food packages contain nutrition panels, usually on the side or back of a product, that lists what the federal government has required in nutrients, calories, serving size and ingredients. Northup's study looked at those panels and at the words that appear on the front of packages.
A total of 318 undergraduates completed an online survey looking at packages and at nutrition panels.
They were asked to look at two versions of a product: the real one and the same one with words such as "organic" or "whole grain" removed. The participants found every version with the words included to be significantly more healthful, the study said. Some examples: Annie's Bunny Fruit Snacks, with and without "organic"; cherry 7-Up, with and without "antioxidants"; and Tostitos tortilla chips, with and without "all natural."
Then they were asked to look at two nutrition panels. They were told the category, such as cereal, but not the name of the product. They were asked to rate healthfulness. Based just on those numbers, 33% of participants chose Spam as more healthful than salmon, for example. Seventy-nine percent chose the less healthful cereal in a pair. But participants did choose juice over soda and carrots over potato chips.
"There's a lot of support backing up and complementing those findings," Schuldt said Tuesday. It builds on the psychological theory that "people assume all sorts of wonderful things about beautiful people."
Applied to food, people might assume a food labeled low-cholesterol was nutritious in ways that have no relation to cholesterol, he said. He cited research that people viewed chocolate labeled fair trade -- a way to evaluate the social ethics of a company -- as having fewer calories.
"Rationally, it doesn't make any sense, but psychologically it makes a lot of sense," Schuldt said.
Consumers are confused, and no one wants to spend much time doing arithmetic to compare labels while they shop, Northup said. "Eight grams of sugar: Is that a bad thing or a good thing?"
Another issue can be serving size. The canned pasta in the study was labeled as containing two servings per can, Northup said. "Not to out my mom, but we ate those all the time when I was growing up. We opened a can and ate the whole thing," unaware of the serving recommendation.
Northup suggested solutions, including consumer education, improved labeling and corporate responsibility.
"It is perhaps time that the food industry take responsibility for how they market their foods and acknowledge the role they play in keeping consumers in the United States misinformed about what is healthy to eat," he wrote.
Studies like Northup's can empower consumers, Schuldt said.
"If labels really do have these effects, don't submit yourself to them," he said, suggesting people shop for whole foods that don't make health claims, such as fresh produce.
The required labeling is under review by the government, and reforms are expected. Some other countries have adopted a traffic light labeling system, with red for eat rarely, yellow with caution and green for the most healthful foods. Northup said he does not expect such a system to be mandated in the United States.